Our Ancestors’ Consumption

The following column appeared in print in February 28, 2015.

Our Ancestors’ Consumpton

Diane Lynn Tibert

Diseases have taken their toll on humans. Between 1347 and 1351, an estimated 50 million people died in Europe and Asia from the plague. They called it the Black Death. The plague reappeared several times afterwards with devastating effects, including an outbreak dubbed the Great Plague of London (1665-66) that killed one in five people.

The Plague of Justinian was the first documented pandemic. It began in 541 AD and swept through Asia, North Africa, Arabia and Europe, lasting two hundred years. At its peak, it killed about 5,000 people a day. It’s difficult to get accurate numbers, but estimates say between 25 and 100 million people died. Researchers suggest this ravaging plague was the trigger for the Dark Ages in Europe.

Many feared the plague and the Spanish Influenza (1918-1920) that killed between 50 and 100 million people, but there was something more lethal in our history, something that still kills thousands of individuals each year. More than likely, you had more than one ancestor who died from it.

Many of us find it in church and death records as consumption, but the true name of the ancient sickness is tuberculosis (TB). Prehistoric bones dating back five millennia reveal the effects of the illness, as do Egyptian mummies from ca.2400 BCE.

The Greek physician Hippocrates identified phthisis (consumption) and described it as the most common and widespread disease of his time. He recorded that it was often fatal. Throughout the centuries, only twenty percent of those who contracted TB survived.

Humans were not the first victims of TB. Cattle were. Evidence gathered from human remains between 8000 and 4000 BCE indicate Mycobacterium bovis (an aerobic bacterium and the causative agent of tuberculosis in cattle) affected humans through the ingestion of cattle milk.

TB is sometimes referred to as the silent killer because it’s not seen as a threat to society. Yet it always has been and still is. It doesn’t move like the plague or influenza—killing many in short periods—but it is more deadly. It is estimated that more than one billion people have died from TB in the past two centuries. That’s more than the combined totals of the plague and the flu.

History knows TB as lupus vulgaris (TB of the skin), Pott’s disease (TB of the bones) and consumption (the usual TB of lung disease). It was once thought of as a spontaneous disease, one that could inflict anyone without cause. Science however proved the air and secretions expelled from consumptive lungs carried the live bacteria causing TB, showing it was a contagious disease.

Those suffering with TB endured night sweats and chills, paroxysmal cough and the gradual wasting away of the body as the disease slowly spread to other organs.

With the advances in modern medicine, one would think TB was a disease of history, much like smallpox. This appeared to be a possibility in the mid-1900s. Incidents of TB around the world dropped significantly because of treatment. The American Medical Association’s Advisory Council for the Elimination of TB anticipated the disease would be extinct by 2010.

Yet by 1985, the tables were turning against this prediction, and new cases were appearing in developing countries. Current statistics state that one third of the world’s population has TB. In 2013, there were 1.5 million TB-related deaths.

Although tuberculosis was a debilitating disease for our ancestors, it may sadly be one for our descendants as well.


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