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One of the leading causes of death in Europe and in the United States during the 19th century was tuberculosis, a disease that has plagued humans since ancient times. Tuberculosis is caused by a bacterium that primarily attacks the lungs, causing chronic cough, high fever and significant weight loss. A person suffering from tuberculosis practically wastes away, earning the disease many names such as “consumption” and “white plague”.

Tuberculosis was an incurable disease, before antibiotics. The only treatment physicians could recommend was going to the mountains, where the dry and fresh air was believed to help draw out moisture from the lungs and alleviate sufferings. Tuberculosis patients flocked to arid climates looking for cures and, if not, at least a good death. The assumption was, that while the disease surely destroyed the body, the mind grew sharp and imagination more vivid. This notion grew from the fact that so many literary figures succumbed to the disease, including Samuel Johnson, Edgar Allan Poe, the Brontë sisters, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Louis Stevenson, and John Keats. So enticing the disease was that Lord Byron himself admitted, “I should like to die from consumption,” and novelist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, best known by her pen name George Sand, said of her lover, the composer Frédéric Chopin, that he “coughs with infinite grace.”

"La Miseria" by Cristóbal Rojas (1886). Rojas was suffering from tuberculosis when he painted this, depicting the sufferings of the debilitating disease.


© Amusing Planet, 2020.



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