Monday Series: A Disease with no Remedy I

Introduction: Confronting Hereditary Phthisis, 1714-1830

“What is then to be done? Has Nature been so unkind,
particularly to the inhabitants of this island, as to afflict
us with a disease for which there is no remedy?”

-Philip Stern, Medical Advice to the Consumptive and Asthmatic People of England, 1776.

The history of tuberculosis has often been portrayed in light of medical triumphalism, with all the tragedies of consumption—its sorrow, romanticism, delicacy, and wasting—eradicated with Koch’s discovery of the tubercle bacillus in 1882.[1] Yet, René and Jean Dubos reminds us tuberculosis is a social disease, a disease that modifies the emotional and intellectual climate of the societies it attacks.[2] Recent scholarly attention has emphasized Dubos and Dubos’ thesis, turning to the social dimension of tuberculosis, factoring in politics, ideology, patient care, and suffering in a wider context. Linda Bryder’s Below the Magic Mountain (1988), F.B. Smith’s The Retreat of Tuberculosis, 1850-1950 (1988), David Barnes’ The Making of a Social Disease (1995), and Greta Jones’ “Captain of all these men of death:” The History of Tuberculosis (2001) are but a few authorities texts on consumption’s social history. The historiography has not only captured the social relevance of the disease, or questioned the authority of the triumph-and-consensus model,[3] but has given the historian a wider range for conceptualizing what might be called a history of ideology for the disease.[4]

In part, the history of ideology has questioned the reception and understanding of the meaning of tuberculosis prior to the onset of the Germ Theory. As Carlos López-Beltrán describes, eighteenth century medical disputes over hereditary ideas of phthisis, including definitions of predispositions, developed into theoretical and ideological preoccupations with the general workings of l’hérédité in the nineteenth century.[5] In the clamorous period between the early continental phthisiologists in France and the emergence of late nineteenth century sanatoriums, medical men slowly began to weave together the foundation of a theory of inheritance based on biological heredity. Instead of a structured domain governed by laws of inheritance, l’hérédité was metaphorically used by physicians under the general adjective les maladies héréditaries to fashion physiological rationale for social and moral degeneracy. A fully comprehensive history of heredity is thus incomplete without an understanding of heredity’s early explanatory force as medical hereditarianism. This series is an attempt to impart a historiography of medical hereditarianism, by examining the reasons for its emerging popularity between the years 1714 and 1830 in France and Britain, with a particular focus on ideas of hereditary phthisis.

[1] In regards to the romantic allure of consumption, Lord Bryon once remarked, “I should like to die of a consumption…because the ladies would say, ‘look at that poor Bryon. How interesting he looks in dying” (Quoted in T.M. Daniel,. Captain of Death: The Story of Tuberculosis (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997), 32.

[2] R.Dubos and J. Dubos, The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man and Society (London: Victor Gollancz., Ltd., 1953), vii.

[3] D. Barnes, The Making of a Social Disease: Tuberculosis in Nineteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 11.

[4] C.E. Rosenberg, “The Bitter Fruit: Heredity, Disease, and Social Thought in Nineteenth-Century America,” in From Consumption to Tuberculosis: A Documentary History. Eds. Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz (New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994), 155.

[5] C. López-Beltrán, “In the Cradle of Heredity: French Physicians and L’Héréditié Naturelle in Early 19th Century,” Journal of the History of Biology 37 (2004), 44.

Latest Comments

  1. Leigh Ramsey says:

    Hi, Jaipreet. I’m wondering your thoughts on the Byron footnote. Could it be that he was being tongue-in-cheek there? Admittedly, my early grad school days, when I last read Byron in-depth, are years past. In any case, a funny, if tangential, reference to consumption is made in the Brit-com “Blackadder” (third incarnation), in the episode about Dr. Johnson, called “Ink and Incapability” ( In Mrs. Miggins’ pie shop, they are hosting several Romantic poets, including Byron, and I think one of the three makes a similar comment about consumption. It’s well worth YouTube-ing (I haven’t had time to see if someone’s got it there) if you don’t have access to the show/DVD. Thanks again for the interesting and “consuming” post (just had to make that terrible pun)!


    • Jai Virdi says:

      I’m not a Byron scholar, but I agree–it’s possibly a sarcastic comment, especially when we consider the “romantic” allure of consumption of that time in relation to fashion (thin, pale, ‘wasting’).

      I haven’t heard of Blackadder but I’ll be sure to check it out. Thanks!


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