Monday, 2 May 2016

Dealing with Tuberculosis (part 5 of 6)

By the turn of the 20th century, the belief that tuberculosis was an infectious disease was widely held. Specialist dispensaries became places to triage sufferers, dole out cod liver oil and distribute advice to slow the spread of the disease. 16 The instructions ranged from how to deal with the sputum of the sufferer and the segregation of their bed linens, to how the home was to be kept. Monthly fumigation and frequent dust-gathering were required to contain the infection. The dispensaries handed out leaflets with the following directives, “But most importantly and therefore usually in bold or capital lettering:
No fondling or kissing of other members of the family, particularly not of children
Married partners to sleep in separate beds preferably separated by a partition
Most important: the surviving head of the household immediately to notify the dispensary of the
death of the patient”*

This took care of the sufferers home environment but the spread of tuberculosis in society at large needed to be curtailed. Campaigns were launched to educate the public, posters can still be found with their advice to the masses. Prominent among their messages was the slogan that spitting spread tuberculosis. Those worried about public health also found other concerns among society such as shared public drinking cups and uncovered food and milk that attracted flies and dust. Dust was especially worrisome as it was believed to be a prime method of transmitting tuberculosis containing, as it did, the dried spit and other effluents from infected bodies. Reformers agitated about these concerns as well.

The late 19th and early 20th century was a time before antibiotics and, as can be seen by the concerns of the public health campaigners, a much less hygienic way of living than the most of the western world enjoys today. This world was different in other ways as well. Not only had the Industrial Revolution brought more people to the towns and cities to live and work in questionable surroundings and so spurred the rise in the spread of tuberculosis but it had also brought about the widespread adoption of the doctrine of separate spheres, where the male was sent out to work and his wife tended the home and children, thereby dooming families whose sole breadwinner was felled by the disease. Not that women didn't work, but they tended to do so when young and single and part of this was because of a difference in the world of work. Oh, there were the long shifts at soul destroying factories but there were also other fields where the way in which the workers lived led to the spread of infection. The placing of apprentices in the homes of their employers could put uninfected and infected people in close contact for long hours, thus spreading the disease. In his paper on pthsisis mortality Andrew Hinde states, “In the female home working area of Bedfordshire, for example, contemporaries complained that the long hours that girls and young women spent first in “lace schools” learning to make lace, and then working at in the cramped cottages led to much higher death rates for females that males, specifically from tuberculosis.”+  A similar observation may be made after reviewing documents related to the Chambers family.


* Thomas Dormandy, White Death: A History of Tuberculosis. (New York: New York University Press,
2000), 312.

Katherine McCuaig, The Weariness, the Fever, and the Fret. (Montrale & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999.)

 “Separate Spheres”, accessed March 27, 2016

+ Andrew Hinde, “Sex differentials in phthisis mortality in England and Wales, 1861-1870.” The History of the Family 20:3 (2015): 366-390, DOI: 10.1080/108162X.2015.1051077


  1. Wow! You've got a lot of material here over the past month! I'll have to keep an eye on your blog if you keep posting such interesting stuff! Thanks for the references, too. It's nice to know where information came from.

  2. The research on tuberculosis was done for a class on the history of medicine so I had lots of information to post on this subject. I have done research on many more historical topics that I will be writing about so stay tuned.