Then vs. Now: What Happened to Consumption?

Consumption once caused 25% of deaths in Europe, including several famous names.

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If you’ve read any classic novel, you’ve probably seen the word consumption. Fantine from Les Miserables, Ruby in Anne of Green Gables, Katerina in Crime and Punishment, and Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin all face this disease. Today, this word has disappeared from the lexicon—but the disease has not.

What Is Consumption?

For many centuries, consumption was simply a common catch-all term for any disease that wasted away the body. In other words, the disease “consumed” them. While this could refer to a number of conditions, more often than not, it referred to tuberculosis (TB).

Tuberculosis is an infection from the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It attacks the body and can affect any organs, but it has an infamous reputation for attacking the lungs (“pulmonary tuberculosis”). For this reason, tuberculosis has long been a devastating condition that took many lives.

Johann Schonlein officially coined the name tuberculosis in 1834, but it wasn’t new: Hippocrates described TB as widespread and fatal back in ancient Greece. Back then, it went by the name phithis.

The Great White Plague

The reason consumption often appears in classic and Victorian literature is because it was rampant between the 1600s and 1900s. TB earned the nickname “The Great White Plague” in the 1700s, based on the fact that it caused extreme paleness in its victims.

Just how bad was this plague? Between the 17th and 19th centuries, TB caused a whopping quarter of deaths in Europe and the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thus, it’s not surprising that many famous names also had or died from consumption. The list includes the Brontë sisters, George Orwell, the British poet John Keats, the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, and President James Monroe.

Consumption + Culture

Given how widespread consumption was, it’s not surprising that it had a profound effect on culture. For starters, many people quickly noticed that consumption affected many writers, poets, composers, and artists. It became a popular belief that having TB heightened your sensitivity and artistic talent.

As a result, people started referring to consumption as a “romantic” disease, and you could especially see this with Chopin. His persistent cough was “oddly, a part of his charm for the women in Paris society,” writes the American essayist Curtis White in his book Requiem. “Consumption was a ‘fever of the Romantics’ [and] the disease gave its victims ‘an exalted inner life’ as a sort of compensation for their ravaged bodies.”

In fact, looking frail, pale, and weak was temporarily “in style.” This went so far that Victorian doctors often dismissed cases of anorexia because they assumed the young girls were merely faking TB, according to social historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg. (Speaking of which, anorexia nervosa—which got its name in 1873—was one of those non-TB diseases to fall under the consumption umbrella.)

Tuberculosis Finds a Treatment

The general public continued to use the term consumption for decades after the disease was officially named tuberculosis. But eventually, it faded from the lexicon. In the 20th century, most people started transitioning to tuberculosis. In other words, consumption didn’t go away—it just got a new name.

For much of history, doctors treated TB with “lana, letto, latte,” which is Italian for some warm sunshine, rest, and good food. As such, it was common to send sick family members away to the countryside to recover. Thankfully, the discovery of antibiotics in the 1940s changed everything. Death rates of TB dropped dramatically, after centuries of mortalities.

Unfortunately, TB isn’t yet gone. The World Health Organization (WHO) still considers the disease a “public health crisis,” as it continues to cause millions of deaths worldwide. In 2018, it affected 10 million people worldwide, and took the lives of 1.5 million, according to WHO. One particular concern is antibiotic-resistant TB, which is even more challenging to treat.

Thankfully, WHO reports that the incidence of TB is dropping by 2 percent every year. The goal is to end the TB epidemic by 2030, which could save millions of lives.