When perusing the biographies of artists, you’ll notice that a large number of them had tuberculosis (TB). I was reminded of this by the anniversary of the death of Robert Louis Stevenson in December of 1894; he was 44 years old. This contemporary obituary in the British Medical Journal refers to an older name for the disease, phthisis.
A short list of artists who had TB includes Honoré de Balzac, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, most of the Brontes, Robert Burns, Stephen Crane, Anton Chekhov, Frédéric Chopin, Eugène Delacroix, Dashiell Hammett, Helen Hunt Jackson, John Keats (and his brother), Henry David Thoreau, and Voltaire. Albert Camus famously suffered from it, although he died in an automobile accident.
Tuberculosis also used to be called consumption, which means “to burn up from within.” The progressive draining away of energy and body weight characteristic of the disease were the reasons for calling it consumption, which may sound strange in today’s consumer society. In Europe, the disease was once so common it was practically a mark of fashion, albeit tragic fashion, to be consumptive. Consider the cultural artifacts of the disease: the heroine of Puccini’s La Bohéme has it; Dumas’s Lady of the Camellias dies of it; Mann’s Magic Mountain takes place in a TB sanitarium; and the doomed Doc Holiday in My Darling Clementine just doesn’t give a damn anymore because he’s dying of it.
TB is a contagious bacterial infection that usually attacks the lungs, but can infect and/or spread to other parts of the body. While it has largely disappeared from our cultural landscape, it’s still a serious global health problem, with nine million cases reported in 2013 (1.5 million of them fatal). Drug-resistant TB and weakened immune systems, for instance in cases of people with HIV, mean the disease remains persistent even in places with advanced medical care. For those of us lucky enough to live in the West and enjoy good health, the disease seems like only an echo found on the page, screen, or stage. Just under 10,000 cases were reported in the U.S. last year, continuing an overall slow decline in numbers.