Before bacteria and antibiotics were known, thousands died from an illness known as consumption
The most dreaded disease in 19th Century Canada started with the letter T rather than C. Not cancer but tuberculosis would cause the deaths of one in five people between 1800 and 1870.1
By various names―consumption, phthisis, TB―tuberculosis was a scourge that respected no age group, no social class, no safe location. It was well known to be infectious but no one knew precisely its cause or cure. Scientists knew that tubercular decay was as old as the bones of Egyptian mummies, and the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates (c.460-377 BCE), described it as common and mostly fatal. Nowadays, we know it was immigrants who brought the disease to North America.
Frighteningly, a person could be infected without showing signs or symptoms. A mild cough and fatigue might be among the early signs but coughing blood was certainly more alarming. Cholera and smallpox could ravage a community in days or weeks but, by contrast, the slow advance of tuberculosis might mask serious deterioration that could go on for years. Tubercular patients were said to be the mainstay of Nova Scotia’s patent medicine industry2 which offered but temporary relief, opium and alcohol being the basis of many of those remedies.
All sorts of explanations circulated about the causes of tuberculosis: heredity, bad air, poverty, lack of cleanliness, even insinuations of moral inferiority. When causes are unknown it’s easy to suspect just about anything. One statistic pointed to fifty per cent of all deaths in Los Angeles in the year 1904 were due to emigrating consumptives who had arrived in California the previous year.3
By the 1870s, some Canadian doctors began to suspect TB was caused by bacteria, but very little was known about bacteria. Only in 1882 did a German bacteriologist, Robert Koch (1843-1910), isolate mycobacterium tuberculosis and make possible programs of eradication that would be realistic and scientific. It naturally required several decades before tuberculosis was under control and not yet was it asked why some people, exposed to TB, didn’t develop the disease. Natural immunity and genetic factors were another century’s questions and another century’s answers. So was the consequence of drug-resistance.
On a summer’s day in June 1844, Samuel Robert Cook and Nancy Fletcher Corbett were married at Portaupique, Nova Scotia. Both were 22 years old that summer. They were young farm folk who lived on Portaupique Mountain, a tiny community on the north side of Cobequid Bay. Within eight years they would become parents of two sons and two daughters and within fifteen years, Nancy would have lost her husband, dead at the age of 30, her four children, the youngest only eleven. When she died at the age of 83, Nancy had outlived her husband by 53 years. Tuberculosis.
Well-known to the Cooks was David Archibald Davidson, a Portaupique boy who became a harness maker. He married Isabella Mahon in 1855 and they started their family in Great Village where David held the office of Customs Collector for Navigation. The port of Londonderry had been established mid-century at Great Village in 1852.4 Within nine years, Isabel would lose her husband and four of their six children: David was only 43 years old when he died; their youngest child only six. Tuberculosis.
Boldy, Isabel gathered up her remaining children, Joe and Hannah, and set off for New Mexico to live with cousins and benefit from the warmer, drier climate. Just what protected those last two children we do not know but they escaped the scourge and their mother was able to educate them in Boston, one in accounting and the other in millinery. Isabel returned to Nova Scotia where she lived to the age of 75 and was buried with most of her family in Great Village.5
Identifying the causes of tuberculosis was the complicated first step toward a cure and certainly a great achievement. For his work in the laboratory, Robert Koch received a Nobel Prize in 1905. Developing remedies and delivering them to all who needed them was another monumental task. On-going treatments, prevention and education took many stages and decades before Canadians could look back and say that tuberculosis was mostly a scourge of the olden days; at least for the time being.
1. Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History, Sheila M. Rothman, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
2. “Tuberculosis in Nova Scotia 1882-1914” by Sheila M. Penny, 1985, Dalhousie University, microfilm from Library Archives Canada.
3. “Medicine and Surgery in Southern California”, an address to the Colchester Medical Society, Jan.1904; Smith L. Walker; Maritime Medical News, Vol. 16, No.4, Apr 1904. Quoted by Sheila Penny, op cit. p.75.
4. Commission of the government of Nova Scotia 1749-1867, RG 1, Vol.176, p.49 Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management, and Family History Collection, Family History Library, film #2281095.
5. Family history, preserved by family historian, Glenda Davidson, Truro, NS.