Is it really a disease only of the poor ?
In the skeleton found in a mummy of the 21st dynasty of Egypt the typical deformity caused by tuberculosis of the backbone, Pott’s disease, was established. Images of similar hunchbacks suggesting backbone TB have also been found on the walls of caves and among various engravings, statues and paintings left behind by ancient civilizations. From the skulls and bones recovered from different parts of the world, tuberculosis is evident in Neolithic man. The evidence of human affliction with this disease can be traced as far back as 8000 BC.
From the study of the recorded as well as unrecorded history of the catastrophe caused by this germ, a very basic fact comes to light. It does not discriminate among its likely victims. Tuberculosis can occur in any person, of any age or sex, of any caste, creed or colour, living anywhere on this earth, and in any organ of his body with a variety of symptoms. These awesome anys of TB have pursued mankind through ages.
Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, expressed pity on the unfortunate consumptives (as TB patients were perceived at that time) and wondered that why anybody who came in contact with them suffered similarly which was so unlike as in other diseases.
Two of the most well known families of the Indian subcontinent that helped shape its destiny in the 20th century had to face the wrath of this silent germ.
Around her 21st birthday, Indira Gandhi, who later became the Prime Minister of India, suffered an attack of pleurisy. In those good old days of 1938 there was no medicine for TB. She later remained admitted in a sanatorium of the famous ‘sun doctor’ in French Swiss Alps, Switzerland. The heliotherapy that she had to reluctantly undergo included lots of fresh air, sunbath, good food, rest and exercise. Fortunately she recovered.
But a couple of years earlier in another Swiss TB sanatorium she had already lost her mother Kamla Nehru, the wife of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India.
Unknown to the leaders of India and Britain, there was a seething sense of urgency in Jinnah’s mind during the crucial final stages of the events which led to the creation of Pakistan. Mohamme Ali Jinnah, the tough negotiator for and the architect of Pakistan, was silently passing through the advanced stages of TB and lung cancer during those hectic days. Dr. Patel from Bombay who treated him was under oath not to reveal anything to anyone lest it changed the destiny of imminent Pakistan. After partition, Streptomycin, the first TB medicine which had just become available, was flown from Karachi with a microscope, a portable X-ray machine and a team of doctors to a hill resort in Pakistan where he lay dying. But all this failed to revive his lungs. Barely a year after the realisation of his cherished dream, he died.
Nelson Mandela, the black South African leader and the recipient of Nobel Prize for peace, fought successfully against his illness. But for his getting cured of TB the political destiny of South Africa might have been different.
It seems, the clever germ has meandered through not only the corridors of political power but also it has not shied away from taking a more aesthetic and literary path.
When the famous doctor turned poet, John Keats saw the crimson colour on his handkerchief, he wrote, “I know the colour of that blood. It’s arterial blood…. That blood is my death warrant, I must die”. Having lost his mother and younger brother to consumption (as tuberculosis was then known) he had an ominous premonition of his own future. With his medical knowledge he had no illusion as to what was happening to him. He died at the young age of 26 in Rome, Italy of tuberculosis, leaving behind one of the finest specimens of Romantic English poetry. good food, rest and exercise.
“This consumption is a disease particularly fond of people who write such good verses as you have done…..” consoled his friend and the great English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, the author of Queen Mab, Prometheus Unbound, Ode to West Wind and Adonais. He himself was a consumptive but was more fortunate than Keats for not having succumbed to the disease. But not for too long. He drowned during a storm at sea at the age of 30.
So many famous poets of the Romantic Era suffered from tuberculosis that this mysterious affliction came to be perceived as a sign of being genteel, sensitive and romantic. The ensuing agony and ecstatic prospect of confrontation with death was romanticised and was believed to make these authors more conscious. And more interesting. It was believed to heighten their powers of creativity in some inexplicable manner. As a result, the tubercular look became a model for aristocratic looks and a mark of distinction. It became glamorous to look thin and sickly, fashionable to be drained and pale.
It was this phenomenon which was reflected in the unfulfilled wish of the great poet, Lord Byron, a friend of Keats and Shelley. Looking into the mirror he exclaimed, ‘I look pale, …….I should like to die of a
There seems to be no doubt that the slim female models on today’s fashion ramps ought to owe their success to the trend of romantic consumptive looks, set during that era. Leigh Hunt, journalist and poet, who edited the radical weekly, The Examiner, and also a quarterly with Lord Byron, actively promoted the works of Keats and Shelley. Besides literary mannerisms that his protégé John Keats had adopted, he shared one more thing with him – consumption.
In those days, consumption was a convenient escape for the suffering poets and artists to spend the rest of their lives into a voyage of self-discovery while they moved from one hill resort to the next in
search of pure air that could heal them. Invalidism became a pretext for retiring and giving up the worldly obligations to be able to live only for the sake of one’s art.
D.H. Lawrence roamed extensively in search of healthy climate. After World War I, to overcome the unhappiness caused by the German origins of his wife and his failing health, he travelled half
the globe including Australia and New Mexico. Although today recognised as a major modernist novelist, he had to face a lot of controversy and needless legal action for obscenity in connection
with his writings – Rainbow and Lady Chatterly’s Lover (1928). He died of tuberculosis at Vence in France in 1930.
Similarly Robert Louis Stevenson of the fame of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and New Airbian Nights availed the opportunity provided by ill health to travel, which he loved so much. No wonder some of his best writings are stories of adventure like Treasure Island and essays of travel like An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes.
The three Bronte sisters, all of them extremely talented writers, is a rare example in the history of English literature. Charlotte Bronte produced Jane Eyre, Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights and Anne Bronte created the Tenant of Wildfell Hall. How much of their literary talents they inherited from their father Rev. Patrick Bronte may be debatable. But he is certainly credited to have been the likely source of infection which ultimately resulted in all his six children succumbing to consumption.
Similarly, the family of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American antislavery campaigner and a great essayist, is also reported to have been wiped out with consumption. Jean Jacques Rousseau, the most celebrated French philosopher, who authored the world famous Social Contract and a number of other writings which inspired the French Revolution of 1789, was himself no stranger to
the suffering caused by this germ. His famous adage that men were born free but lived everywhere in chains, very much reflected his
own life constrained by disease and turmoil.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the most celebrated German poet, a formidable genius and a prolific writer, who left behind a literary treasure which includes Faust, Egmont and Götz was also not spared.
At the tender age of 20, Franz Kafka who wrote The Stoker, The Metamorphosis and The Judgement etc. started to feel “increasingly not altogether healthy”. Many years later when clinical tuberculosis set in, he wrote that the “….illness which had been coaxed into revealing itself after (five years of) headache and sleeplessness” broke out – that “coughing up of blood” arrived as “almost a relief”, ending for the time being, all “attempts at marriage” and also liberating him from his job at the insurance company. He died in a sanatorium in Austria in 1924.
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, an extraordinary Russian novelist of the fame of Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, lived a turbulent life – a stint in the army, a death sentence that was finally commuted to imprisonment in Siberia, the closure of his outspoken magazine, The Times, his perpetual indebtedness and last but not the least his encounter with tuberculosis.
Another celebrated Russian doctor turned writer Pavlovich Anton Chekhov who wrote brilliant plays like The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters that were both tragic and humorous clearly reflecting the social conditions of his time, too had his share of similar tragic circumstances on the health front. Katherine Mansfield from New Zealand bore resemblance to Chekhov not only in the form and style of story writing but also in health condition.
The well-known English poet, Alexander Pope, who wrote The Rape of the Lock, was afflicted with sickness and a deformity which made him very moody and given to fits of temper. Often he exhibited these traits in print with tales and remarks about people around him. Thus this 4 feet 6 inches tall poet with deformed curvature of the spine, a condition common to backbone tuberculosis, left behind some of the most polished satire.
The English writer, lexicographer and wit, Samuel Johnson, who took eight painstaking years to complete his Dictionary of the English Language which shot him to instant fame, had an early encounter with this disease. Born to a bookseller, it was among books that he spent his childhood marred by ill health caused by tubercular infection from his wetnurse. It affected his eyesight and hearing. His face was scarred from tuberculosis of lympth glands of the neck area called Scrofula or King’s Evil, a name derived from the myth prevalent in England during the middle ages that touching king’s feet could cure it.
Famed author of Animal Farm and 1984, George Orwell too suffered. Not only the writers and poets but many famous artists too had to contend with this malady.
Frederic Chopin, the famous Polish-born pianist who composed 24 studies, 24 preludes, nocturnes and ballades, contracted tuberculosis. His stormy love affair with the French writer Georges Sand made him neglect his work and also health. He explored the islands of Western Mediterranean hoping to heal himself. Finally his lungs collapsed and he died at 39.
The greatest violinist of all times from Italy, Niccolo Paganini could almost make his instrument sing. But the rhythm of his own life was disturbed by T.B.
So much had TB come to be associated with creativity that at the end of Romantic Era, some critics lamented that gradual disappearance of TB was responsible for the decline of literature and arts.
The great mathematician from India, Sriniwas Ramanujan, during his brief life span of 33 years, failed to calculate the volume of his own misery caused by tuberculosis and poverty.
Hermann Brehmer, a Botany student from Germany, suffered tuberculosis. On the instructions of his physician he travelled to the Himalayas. He returned home, cured. Then he studied medicine and published his thesis -Tuberculosis is a curable disease. His sanatorium in Gorbersdorf in the mountains of Silesia was a pioneer attempt and became a blue print for the sanatorium movement to
In USA, Edward Livingstone Trudeau broke down with tuberculosis. His recovery at a mountain resort brought about the establishment of the first sanatorium in New York.
At the dawn of the 19th century, two doctor friends were burning the midnight oil working ceaselessly to help mankind in understanding the disease. Gaspard Bayle painstakingly dissected the bodies of people dying of consumption & described many of the pathological changes. While performing autopsy studies he himself contracted the disease and died of it. The other friend, Rene Theodore Laennec, a genius Frenchman invented stethoscope, a magic instrument that tells so much what goes on inside the chest just by listening to the sounds within. It was to shape the history of not only the diseases of the lungs but also of the heart. But with this fame and glory also came his share of sorrow and pain. His mother, two uncles and younger brother died of tuberculosis. Finally he too succumbed to it. Thus
was the great invention of stethoscope avenged by the germ.
1. Tuberculosis by S.K. Sharma and A. Mohan (Chapter 2 : History) Published by Jaypee Brothers Medical Publishers (P) Ltd., New
2. ‘History of Tuberculosis’ by K.N.Rao
3. “Illness as Metaphor” (Chapter 4) by SUSAN SONTAG Published by Penguin.
4. “INDIRA The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi” by Katherine Frank Published by Harper Collins publishers.
5. “Jinnah of Pakistan” by Stanley Wolpert Published in 1984 by Oxford University Press.
6. 1000 Great Lives by Plantagenet Somerset Fry Published by Hamlyn Publishing.
7. Prentice Hall Guide to English Literature edited by Mario Wynne – Davies
8. “Keats’s Life and Poetic Works.”
9. Franz Kafka : Picture of a Life by KLAUS WAGENBACH published by Pantheon Books New York.
From the book – A Death Every Minute