The White Plague

The third lecture in the series deals with tuberculosis, of all diseases the most widely represented in literature, opera and drama. The disease has been present in humans since prehistory and hence has a particularly long pedigree of representation in myth and culture, being one of the sources of vampire stories on the one hand, and playing a key role in novels of slow deathbed decline on the other.

Though many characters in the fictional representation of tuberculosis are well-off, most famously of course in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, it was in fact a disease of the poor, and reached new levels in the industrial revolution. Correspondingly the slow decline of its incidence owed more to housing reform, slum clearance and increasing prosperity than to medical intervention. The discovery of the vector of the disease in the late nineteenth century led to effective prevention through the BCG vaccine from the 1920s, and after 1945 the arrival of antibiotics promised its complete eradication. Since the 1980s however resistant strains of the disease have been spreading, and it has once more become associated with poverty, poor state management and control of disease, and wretched housing conditions, above all in India.

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