Thursday, 28 April 2016

Tuberculosis Treatment (part 4 of 6)

Going to more favourable climates was one of the “cures” for TB. A belief in the powers of a fresh air cure made many mountain-side sanatoriums popular. Sanatoriums were established in different areas as well. The first hospital in Bournemouth was actually a sanatorium built in 1855 as a convalescent home for the Brompton Hospital in London. Perhaps William and Sarah Ann Chambers were lured there by the book The Medical Aspects of Bournemouth and its Surroundings which was published in 1885 and written by Dr Horace Dobell, a specialist in chest diseases.

While popular with those who had the means to attend them, sanatoriums in this time period seem to have had questionable success. Their regimes of good food and rest outside of crowded cities may have boosted some sufferers' resistance, but with the on-again off-again symptomology of tuberculosis, the disease might have just decided to retreat for a while. The demand for immediate results by various groups lead to misleading reports of therapeutic successes. Although there was a sanatorium in Bournemouth, it is unlikely that Sarah Ann would have been admitted to it as preference for spots was given to male breadwinners. Sanatoriums were less popular with women than for men as women didn't like to leave their families and, if given a place, tended to leave when there were problems with the children at home. Busy wives and mothers would have been more likely to have used one of the dispensaries in Bournemouth which doled out medication for consumption sufferers. Dispensaries were cheap and some were even free. 


Thomas Dormandy, White Death: A History of Tuberculosis. (New York: New York University Press,

F.B. Smith, The Retreat of Tuberculosis 1850-1950. (London, New York, Sydney: Croom Helm, 1988).

“Streets of Bournemouth: Health”,  accessed February 25, 2016

Flurin Condrau, “Beyond the Total Institution: Towards a Reinterpretation of the Tuberculosis     Sanatorium.” In Tuberculosis Then and Now, ed Flurin Condrau and Michael Worboys (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010).

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Consumption and Families (post 3 of 6)

Consumption involved families. In fact, it was believed to be hereditary, so much so that there was a policy that people who had relatives with the disease were excluded from Civil Service jobs. An explanation for this debilitating disease was needed and heredity made sense. There were three deaths from tuberculosis in the Chambers family. Perhaps they also thought the disease was carried by their family. Or maybe they questioned the link, after all the next person in the family to die was Sarah Ann Conway Chambers, the wife of William Chambers. John Thomas Chambers was the first family member known to have died from tuberculosis and William Chambers was his brother. This meant that Sarah Ann was not directly linked to the Chambers family by blood. She died in 1890. This was after Robert Koch's 1882 discovery that tuberculosis was a disease caused by the tubercle bacilli. But in 1890 some of the old beliefs about the disease still lingered.

William and Sarah Ann Chambers were fortunate that the disease had not affected the bread winner of the family. Many families had been brought to destitution by the breadwinner's inability to work to feed and house his family. Where destitution took hold, death often followed, not just for the head of the household but other members of the family as well. In what appears to have been a move for health reasons, the Chambers and their two young sons left the industrial city of Birmingham to take up residence in Bournemouth. 


Thomas Dormandy, White Death: A History of Tuberculosis. (New York: New York University Press, 2000)

Alex Tankard, "The Victorian Consumptive in Disability Studies." Journal Of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 5,

no. 1 (March 2011)

Christian McMillen, Discovering Tuberculosis: A Global History 1900 to Present. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015)

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Late 19th Century England and the Reality of Tuberculosis (part 2 of 6)

Rather than people lying in their beds in romantically pale and waiting to die, the reality was that there were thousands of infected people. But tuberculosis was a selective killer. A study of urban postmortem examinations in the 1890s showed that the majority of adults were infected by tuberculosis but only ten percent went on to develop symptoms and die of the disease. Tuberculosis could lay dormant and never become active or it could activate and kill within weeks or disappear and come back again. In England active cases of tuberculosis had been at their peak from 1790 to 1840, in lock step with the Industrial Revolution which ensconced people in poorly ventilated factories for long hours and housed them in inadequate tenements, both breeding grounds for disease.

Although tuberculosis incidence was on the downswing by 1840, it was still a major killer. While poor and densely populated areas had higher rates of the disease so did certain occupations such as bakers, tailors, printers, seamstresses and shoemakers; where industrial processes produced dust or vapours which would affect the lungs.This occupational hazard fit in with the first tuberculosis related death my grandfather's family. In 1888 his uncle, John Thomas Chambers, died from phthisis. He was a shoe manufacturer and was 34 when he died. Had his occupation triggered a genetic predisposition to the active form of the disease and had he brought it home to his family? 


Thomas Dormandy, White Death: A History of Tuberculosis. (New York: New York University Press, 2000).

F.B. Smith, The Retreat of Tuberculosis 1850-1950. (London, New York, Sydney: Croom Helm, 1988).

Michael Worboys, “Before McKeown: Explaining the Decline of Tuberculosis in Britain, 1880-1930.” In Tuberculosis Then and Now, ed Flurin Condrau and Michael Worboys (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010).

Friday, 15 April 2016

Living with Tuberculosis in England around the turn of the 20th Century (part 1 of 6)

Unlike other diseases whose epidemics felled whole swathes of population in a short amount of time, tuberculosis was a disease that people lived with, a deadly killer in the population that gradually took over many lives. Around the turn of the 20th century in England, its reach affected many and brought about changes in society and in the individual families which were its basis.

My research to find out about my grandfather Chambers' life, led me to delve deeper into the tuberculosis experience in England at this time. His family was affected by pulmonary tuberculosis, at the time commonly called phthisis or consumption. Members of the Chambers family lived with and died from the disease, but why had they become infected and how did the disease affect their lives?

A favoured character in many Victorian novels was the dying consumptive, a noble young creature bravely waiting for death while slowly wasting away. The English novelists' use of the young consumptive as a plot device fell out of fashion about 1880, but the use of such characters had prevailed for decades and the stereotypical consumptive trope is still with us today as new readers discover these classic tales. The long suffering victim on her death bed which these novels portray is an image that has seeped into western cultural shorthand much like good guys wearing white hats and bad guys wearing black hats. Such images colour our understanding about consumption.


The reality was different.


Dormandy, Thomas. White Death: A History of Tuberculosis. New York: New York University Press, 2000

Smith, F. B. The Retreat of Tuberculosis 1850-1950. London, New York, Sydney: Croom Helm, 1988