Tuberculosis, A Writer’s Disease?

by Geneviève Charland

            Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease caused by a germ called mycobacterium tuberculosis. The germ causes an infection in the lungs, but it can affect other parts of the body  such as the central nervous system, the lymphatic system, the circulatory system, bones, joints and the skin.

            TB was originally called consumption, because it apparently consumed people from within. Before the Industrial Revolution, TB may sometimes have been regarded as vampirism. When one member of a family died from it, other members would lose their health slowly.

            The symptoms can be confused with those of many other diseases. Symptoms include weight loss, loss of energy, decrease in appetite,  fever, night sweats, chest pain and coughing up blood.
            TB is transmitted by air, exposure to germs present in the saliva of infected people. When an infected person coughs, sneezes, speaks, kisses or spits, tiny infectious droplets are thrown into the air and may be inhaled by anyone around. After being inhaled through the nose and mouth, the infection reaches the lungs. From the lungs the germs can be spread through the bloodstream to other parts of the body. In the weeks after infection, the immune system, which is the defense mechanism of the human body against infection, reacts to the presence of germs and prevents their spread. All those infected do not develop the disease. In fact, about 90% of those infected carry on their lives without any symptoms. A person who has been infected but did not develop the disease cannot infect others because the germ is not present in the saliva. Approximately 5% of infected persons develop the disease. A person with active but untreated TB can infect another 10–15 persons per year.

            TB was identified as a disease in the 1820s. During the years 1838–1845, Dr. John Croghan, the owner of Mammoth Cave, brought many TB infected patients into the cave in the hope of curing the disease with the constant temperature and purity of the cave air: they died within a year. The first TB sanatorium opened in 1859 in Germany by Hermann Brehmer. The first successful attempt in immunizing against tuberculosis was developed by Albert Calmette and Camille Guerin in 1906. It was called 'BCG' (Bacillus of Calmette and Guerin). The BCG vaccine was first used on humans in 1921 in France, but it was not until after World War II that BCG received widespread acceptance in the USA, Great Britain, and Germany.

            According to the World Health Organization, almost 2 billion persons have been in contact with TB. Every year, 8 million persons are infected by TB, and 2 million persons die from TB. Including authors such as:

  • Katherine Mansfield health declined after an attack of pleurisy when she contracted TB in 1917. She spent her last years seeking cures for tuberculosis. In February 1922, she consulted a Russian physician. His treatment, which consisted of bombarding her with X-rays, caused her to develop heat flashes and numbness in her legs. In October 1922, she moved to the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. She suffered a pulmonary hemorrhage in January 1923 and died at the age of 35.
  •  D.H. Lawrence suffered an attack of malaria and TB in March 1925. Although he eventually recovered, the diagnosis of his condition obliged him to return once again to Europe. He was ill and his health was poor which limited his ability to travel for the rest of his life. He died in 1930 at the age of 44 due to complications from TB.
  • Franz Kafka died of TB in 1924,

       he was only 41 years old.



  • Anton Cekhov died of TB at the health spa of Badenweiler, Germany, on 15 July 1904 at the age of 44.
  • Thomas Hardy died in 1927 of Pleurisy which is an inflammation of the pleura, surrounding the lungs. His death might have been related to TB.
  • Joseph Conrad died in 1869 at the age of 67. He was possibly infected with the disease since both of his parents died of TB. He publish a book in 1897, The nigger of the "Narcissus". The main character, James Wait, was ill with TB.

            All of these authors lived in cold climates and either developed the disease or contracted it from someone who was infected. I can also assume that they might not have been healthy which made the risk higher to have TB since their immune system was not strong enough to fight it.

            Since TB can be a difficult disease to diagnose nowadays my hypothesis why all these authors died of this disease is because the medical field was not develop enough to diagnose and cure it. A medical evaluation for TB includes a medical history, a chest X-ray, a physical examination and radiology. All these methods were not available years ago.


Works Cited


Alvin, Virginia. Robert, Silverstein. Diseases and People Tuberculosis. Hillside: New Jersey,



Canadian Center for occupational health and safety. Tuberculosis. 2 Nov 2007



Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Tu Puakitanga. Katherine Mansfield. 2 Nov 2007



The lung association. Tuberculosis. 2 Nov 2007



World Health Organization. Tuberculosis. 2 Nov 2007



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