In an age when we believe that we have the tools to conquer most diseases, the ancient scourge of tuberculosis (TB) still causes 2 million deaths a year worldwide—more than any other single infectious organism—reminding us that we still have a long way to go. Even equipped with drugs to treat TB effectively, we haven't managed to eradicate this deadly infection.
What is the history of tuberculosis? And how has it managed to survive for so long? This section will answer these questions, plus describe the symptoms and treatment options available for TB.
An Ancient Scourge That Still Kills Today
Tuberculosis was first formally described by Greek physician Hippocrates around 460 B.C.E. He called it phthsis which is the Greek word for consumption, because it described the way the disease consumed its victims. Consumption was the most widespread disease of the time, and most of its victims died. The word consumption was used to describe the disease until 1882, when the tuberculosis bacteria was identified as the cause of the disease.
Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, has been around for centuries. Recently, fragments of the spinal columns from Egyptian mummies from 2400 B.C.E. were found to have definite signs of the ravages of this terrible disease. Also called consumption, TB was identified as the most widespread disease in ancient Greece, where it was almost always fatal. But it wasn't until centuries later that the first descriptions of the disease began to appear. Starting in the late seventeenth century, physicians began to identify changes in the lungs common in all consumptive, or TB, patients. At the same time, the earliest references to the fact that the disease was infectious began to appear.
In 1720, the English doctor Benjamin Marten was the first to state that TB could be caused by “wonderfully minute living creatures.” He went further to say that it was likely that ongoing contact with a consumptive patient could cause a healthy person to get sick. Although Marten's findings didn't help to cure TB, they did help people to better understand the disease.
The sanitorium, which was introduced in the mid-nineteenth century, was the first positive step to contain TB. Hermann Brehmer, a Silesian botany student who had TB, was told by his doctor to find a healthy climate. He moved to the Himalayas and continued his studies. He survived his bout with the illness, and after he received his doctorate, built an institution in Gorbersdorf, where TB patients could come to recuperate. They received good nutrition and were outside in fresh air most of the day. This became the model for the development of sanitoria around the world.
Tuberculosis is spread through the air, so everyone is at some risk.
In 1865, French military doctor Jean-Antoine Villemin demonstrated that TB could be passed from people to cattle and from cattle to rabbits. In 1882, Robert Koch discovered a staining technique that allowed him to see the bacteria that cause TB under a microscope.
Until the introduction of surgical techniques to remove infected tissue and the development of x-rays to monitor the disease, doctors didn't have great tools to treat TB. TB patients could be isolated, which helped reduce the spread of the disease, but treating it remained a challenge.