Tuberculosis: A Short History

Posted on 10 June 2013

Details of a new exhibition and publication by the Centre for Global Health Histories

A girl with tuberculosis appealing for funds for a sanatorium for tuberculous children in Zürich. Colour lithograph after H.C. Ulrich, 1905. © Wellcome Library, London

The Centre for Global Health Histories has collaborated with the Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders to deliver two events focussing on the history of tuberculosis to feature as part of the York Festival of ideas. Tuberculosis (TB) is widely seen as a disease that is endemic across the world, but also one that has developed new strains that threaten to explode in epidemic proportions. This exhibition focuses on the history of TB’s impact and the efforts to control it from the nineteenth century up until the present day. It features a number of extraordinary and haunting images reproduced from the Wellcome Library image collection and the World Health Organization's photographic archives. Each illuminates a different episode from the history of the disease. The exhibition will be on show from 21st to 22nd of June at the York Medical Society rooms (23 Stonegate, York), 09.30 am to 17.30 pm; admission is free.

A companion publication has also been produced, Tuberculosis: A Short History’, edited by staff of the Centre for Global Health Histories, Drs Alexander Medcalf, and Prof. Sanjoy Bhattacharya, and Dr Henrice Altink of the University of York Department of History. The publication showcases images from the exhibition as well as further examples from the two repositories. The book also features chapter introductions from leading academics: Dr Helen Bynum introduces tuberculosis as an ancient and deadly foe, Professor Christoph Gradmann explores Robert Koch and the Tubercule Bacillus, Dr Niels Brimnes examines the global tuberculosis programme of the World Health Organization, Dr Henrice Altink charts TB in the British Empire, and members of the WHO Stop TB Department present a short history of drug-resistant TB. Copies of this 44-page, hard-backed book will be distributed free-of-charge to exhibition-goers (subject to availability). A free-to-download copy is also available online. Click the following link and follow the instructions to download a free copy of this fantastic publication TB-A Short History (PDF , 6,861kb)

A sickly female invalid sits covered up on a balcony overlooking a beautiful view, death (a ghostly skeleton clenching a scythe and an hourglass) is standing next to her; representing tuberculosis. Watercolour by R. Cooper.

The exhibition’s opening night will feature a guest lecture by Dr Helen Bynum, author of ‘Spitting Blood: The History of Tuberculosis’. In her talk, ‘The longest and most dangerous of all chronic diseases’, Dr Bynum uses the experiences of three tuberculous patients Tobias Smollett (1721-71), John Keats (1795-1821) and George Orwell (1903-1950) to explore pulmonary tuberculosis as a chronic disease of the past and reflect on its modern face. There are tales of travel and confinement to bed, bloodletting and bloody sputum, and not enough happy endings. The event is also to be held at the York Medical Society rooms on Stonegate: the event is ticketed and free tickets are available through the festival’s website (www.yorkfestivalofideas.com/2013/talks/longest-dangerous-disease/).

The exhibition and publication are the result of collaborative work between the Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders, the Centre for Global Health Histories and with support from the Humanities Research Centre. Each is delighted to have linked up with the WHO global Health Histories project and the WHO Stop TB campaign. The organisers would like to thank the Wellcome Library and the Wellcome Trust for their generous support of this event, and also the unstinting support and assistance of the World Health Organization, Orient BlackSwan Private Limited, and the Humanities Research Centre at the University of York.

Images: A girl with tuberculosis appealing for funds for a sanatorium for tuberculous children in Zürich. Colour lithograph after H.C. Ulrich, 1905 & A sickly female invalid sits covered up on a balcony overlooking a beautiful view, death (a ghostly skeleton clenching a scythe and an hourglass) is standing next to her; representing tuberculosis. Watercolour by R. Cooper. Both courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.