The devastating history of tuberculosis: A century of pain and death (1900-2000)


history of tuberculosis

The history of tuberculosis is one of the oldest and most painful of humanity. The disease has affected the world since time immemorial and has been responsible for the death of millions of people throughout all these years.

A journey through the history of tuberculosis: discoveries, treatments and advances

history of tuberculosis

Ancient Egypt

The history of tuberculosis goes back thousands of years, is one of the oldest diseases that has affected humanity. Research has shown the presence of M. tuberculosis DNA in the bone tissue of Egyptian mummies, suggesting that the disease existed in 3700 BC in Egypt, constituting one of the seven plagues cited in the Old Testament. Likewise, there is evidence of the presence of a large sanitarium to treat TB in Egypt around 1000 BC.

History of tuberculosis

The scientific community obtained important findings, such as the discovery of the causative agent by Roberto Koch, the BCG vaccine and the discovery of anti-tuberculosis drugs.

Middle Ages and Modern Ages of History

Tuberculosis was rare in the Americas and is believed to have been introduced to the continent by European immigrants. However, the discovery of M. tuberculosis DNA in Peruvian mummies suggests that it existed in the Pre-Columbian era. In Africa, the first signs of the disease appeared in hominids three million years ago. Other evidence indicates that TB was introduced to the continent by European settlers in the 1800s. In Asian civilizations, the first references to TB were found in the Vedas, written in 1500 BC, in which TB was known as Yaksma.

In this part of the history of tuberculosis, despite the fact that these civilizations knew about TB and collected its general principles, it is only known that the direct action for its cure lay in the consumption of foods such as milk, meat and vegetables, as well as in the rest of the sick individual.

In Europe, the disease is believed to have occurred around 2,500 to 1,500 BC. Subsequently, during the Industrial Revolution and the Renaissance, in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, tuberculosis, also known as the “white plague”, was the main cause of death in European countries, and represented the first major epidemic that spread to Europe mid-20th century. In the year 1854, the first in history of tuberculosis sanatorium was established in Germany, and later sanatoriums were established in other regions of the world. The treatment criterion was based on the isolation of the patient, rest, diet and exposure of the patient to fresh air.

During the Modern Age, tuberculosis became one of the main causes of death in Europe. The doctors of the time believed that the disease was caused by cold air, the lack of fresh air or the presence of bad humors in the body. The idea that tuberculosis was contagious was not established until the 19th century, when it was discovered that the disease was transmitted through droplets of saliva expelled by infected patients.

In the 19th century, tuberculosis became a worldwide epidemic. The disease spread rapidly in the overcrowded cities of the time, where living conditions were unsanitary and people lived in proximity. Sanitariums became a common way of treating the disease, as it was believed that fresh air and sunshine could help cure it.
At the same time, scientific medicine began to take off. In the year 1882, the doctor Roberto Koch, isolated the causal agent of TB, Mycobacterium tuberculosis or Koch’s bacillus. On March 24 of that same year, he made his discovery public before the Berlin Physiology Society and, since then, world TB day has been celebrated on that date.

History of tuberculosis

20th Century

The discovery of the BCG vaccine, by Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin, and the development of drugs such as streptomycin, isoniazid, and pyrazinamide in the mid-20th century, contributed to the control of the disease. This being a fact with considerable weight and importance in the history of tuberculosis. However, since 1985, the AIDS pandemic, the appearance of resistant strains, massive migrations and the increase in poverty, mainly in Asia and Africa, have favored the increase in morbidity and mortality in the world, being considered a re-emerging disease.

In the first half of the 20th century, tuberculosis was still one of the leading causes of death worldwide. However, thanks to advances in medicine and research, an effective tuberculosis vaccine was developed in the 1920s. In addition, new antibiotics were developed in the 1940s that could cure the disease.

Despite these advances, tuberculosis remained a serious problem in some developing countries, where poverty, malnutrition, and lack of access to adequate medical care contributed to the spread of the disease. In the 1980s, tuberculosis became a global epidemic again, due to the emergence of HIV/AIDS and the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of the disease.

The World Health Organization declared tuberculosis a disease of global urgency in 1993. In the year 2000, the “Stop Tuberculosis Global Alliance” was created, made up of more than 500 countries and governmental and non-governmental organizations, whose objective is to strengthen tuberculosis control, was instrumental in the development of the history of tuberculosis.

Currently, tuberculosis remains a major public health problem. Despite the fact that the disease is curable and effective treatments exist, it still kills millions of people every year, especially in developing countries. The history of tuberculosis is a reminder of the importance of international research and collaboration to combat deadly diseases like this.

Historical figures who died from TBC

The history of tuberculosis has involved the death of numerous historical figures throughout the centuries. Here are some examples of famous people who died from tuberculosis.

  • Frédéric Chopin: The famous Polish composer and pianist, died at the age of 39 in Paris in 1849.
  • Emily Brontë: The British author of the novel “Withering Heights” died at the age of 30 in 1848.
  • John Keats: The English Romantic poet, died at the age of 25 in 1821.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson: The Scottish author of “Treasure Island” and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” died at the age of 44 in Samoa in 1894.
  • Anton Chekhov: The famous Russian playwright and writer died at the age of 44 in 1904.
  • George Orwell: The British author of “1984” and “Animal Farm” died at the age of 46 in 1950.
  • Franz Kafka: The Czech writer died at the age of 40 in 1924.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt: The activist and former first lady of the United States she died at the age of 78 in 1962 due to tuberculosis, although she had been treated and cured of the disease in her youth.

Today, 21st century

Research has focused on improving epidemiological control and prevention strategies. Additionally, with the discovery of the complete sequence of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis genome, it has been possible to broaden the field of research in the search for new techniques for molecular diagnosis and genetic typing, improving knowledge about its transmission and the implementation of new control measures. In fact, we still have some things to add to this history of tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis remains a serious disease and one of the leading causes of death worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 5.8 million new cases of tuberculosis were reported worldwide in 2020, and an estimated 1.4 million people died from the disease. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on tuberculosis care and control around the world.

Regarding the current management of tuberculosis cases, the WHO recommends a comprehensive approach that includes early diagnosis, appropriate treatment and prevention of disease transmission. The use of molecular tests for the diagnosis of tuberculosis is recommended, such as the GeneXpert test, which can provide rapid and accurate results in just a few hours.

In all the time of the history of tuberculosis, we could say that, now, treatment remains a lengthy process involving the combination of several drugs for at least six months, and can last up to 12–18 months in complicated cases. In addition, the WHO recommends directly observed administration of treatment, which implies that a health professional observes the person taking the medicines to ensure adherence to treatment.

The history of tuberculosis has been an inspiration for many writers and artists, who have portrayed the terrible reality of the disease in their works.

Taking into account the history of tuberculosis… Is it still a global emergency?

Tuberculosis continues to be considered a global public health emergency due to its impact on people’s health and lives, as well as its economic and social burden. The WHO has set a global goal to prevent and control tuberculosis, with the goal of reducing mortality by 90% and incidence by 80% by the year 2030.

To achieve this goal, coordinated and sustained action is required at all levels, from research and development of new diagnostic and treatment tools to the effective implementation of tuberculosis prevention and control strategies in health systems. It is also important to address the socioeconomic and cultural factors that contribute to the spread of the disease, such as poverty, overcrowding, and lack of access to health care.

In summary, tuberculosis requires a comprehensive and coordinated response at all levels to prevent and control the disease and reduce its impact on people’s health and lives. And, as the years go by, the history of tuberculosis will continue to increase more and more. The history of tuberculosis is a reminder of the importance of prevention and early treatment of infectious diseases, as well as the need for accessible health care for all.

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