'Every Breath You Take': Exhibit Shows How Tuberculosis Was Treated from 1850 to 1950

April 1, 2009 — Known as "consumption," "TB" and "white plague," tuberculosis dates back to prehistory and remains endemic in much of the world. Modern medical understanding of the disease has given us cures, and we often consider it a thing of the past, but for most of our history it has been a violent and mystifying killer.
A Health Sciences Library exhibit that opens today, "Every Breath You Take: Tuberculosis Treatments," shows how people searched for new ways to treat and prevent the infectious, often deadly disease, as well as looking for its cause.

The exhibit is part of the "Reflection on Health in Society and Culture" series, a joint project of the Medical School and the library's Historical Collections and Services. It explores historical themes relating health and medicine to society and culture, said Addeane Caelleigh, curator of the exhibit series, which began in 2007.

Despite the then-popular perception of tuberculosis as a dirty, immoral sickness, every family was touched by it – from the poorest to the wealthiest. In the late 1800s, tuberculosis was still at the epidemic level that had characterized the disease for hundreds of years, and modern medicine had no hope to offer sufferers. A diagnosis of tuberculosis was, in effect, a sentence to a painful death, comparable to that of AIDS in our more recent history.

Although German physician Robert Koch discovered the cause of tuberculosis in 1882 ¬ a mycobacteria – the stigma of immorality and uncleanliness lingered for 60 years until a cure was found.

The library's exhibit includes information, images and artifacts on the pervasiveness of tuberculosis from 1850 to 1950, as well as the search for cures, the establishment of sanitariums to treat patients and fundraising for treatment and research, along with other topics. Special emphasis is given to the various fresh-air treatments for TB patients (mountain air, sea air, desert air, even cave air).
Part of the exhibit is a collection of TB-related posters from the American Lung Association of Virginia, being exhibited for the first time. A 1925 incubator used to culture TB specimens at the Blue Ridge Sanitarium in Charlottesville is also on display.

Exhibits are displayed in the library for six weeks. Anyone wishing to arrange a guided tour should contact Sonya Coleman at sjc9t@virginia.edu or 434-982-0576. 

Web versions of the exhibits are permanent and more extensive. Past exhibits are online at www.hsl.virginia.edu/historical/reflections/.