The Art of Consumption

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

If you’ve stopped to read this … surprise! I’m not talking about eating/drinking/using up something, but rather about tuberculosis, a disease once commonly called consumption. It has an amazing history with the fine arts, but first, let’s start with a definition of the disease itself.

Here’s what the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has to say: “Tuberculosis (TB) is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The bacteria usually attack the lungs, but TB bacteria can attack any part of the body such as the kidney, spine, and brain. Not everyone infected with TB bacteria becomes sick. As a result, two TB-related conditions exist: latent TB infection (LTBI) and TB disease. If not treated properly, TB disease can be fatal.” It’s an ancient disease, well known to the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. It’s mentioned in the Old Testament, and some research indicates it may have prehistoric origins. But the bacteria that causes it wasn’t identified until 1882, by Dr. Robert Koch, and not until antibiotics were developed, more specifically streptomycin in 1943, was any sort of effective treatment was available. “Today, tuberculosis is relatively easy to diagnose; when the right combination of medications is made available and taken by the patient, the disease can be cured more than 95% of the time; and in certain targeted populations, the manifestations of the disease can be attenuated by vaccination and even prevented by chemotherapy.”

As mentioned, tuberculosis is intimately entangled with art, music, and literature. One obvious reason is the sheer prevalence of the disease. “Mortality from tuberculosis was colossal: one of every four deaths recorded in parish registries from England at the end of the eighteenth century was attributed to the disease; moreover, consumption was probably the most common killer of American colonial adults, and accounted for more than 25% of deaths in New York City between 1810 and 1815.”

Line graph of "Death Rate per 100,000" from 1700 to 2000.
Line graph of “Death Rate per 100,000” from 1700 to 2000.

Given this large number of cases, it’s not surprising that it was as widespread among authors, artists, and musicians as it was among the general populace.  Still, the number of well-known people in these fields who suffered and died from TB is striking. Here are just a few:

Alexander Pope, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sidney Lanier, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Vivien Leigh, Katherine Mansfield, Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, John Keats, Stephen Crane, all 6 of the Bronte siblings, Frederic Chopin, Thomas Wolfe, Amedeo Modigliani, and Henry David Thoreau.

Victor Hugo utilized the scourge of tuberculosis to highlight societal ills in two of his novels. In Les Misérables, the character of Fantine dies of consumption after her poverty pushed her into prostitution. Another manifestation of tuberculosis was a severe deformity of the spine, known as Pott’s disease. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, some believe this is what Quasimodo suffered. In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy based the character of Nikolai Levin on his own brother, Dmitry, who died of tuberculosis some 20 years before the novel was published. Thomas Mann set The Magic Mountain in a Swiss sanitarium for tuberculosis patients. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Little Eva character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the very picture of one dying of tuberculosis: “Eva lay back on her pillows; her hair hanging loosely about her face, her crimson cheeks contrasting painfully with the intense whiteness of her complexion and the thin contour of her limbs and features, and her large, soul-like eyes fixed earnestly on every one.” (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, chapter 26 “Death”. Project Gutenberg). In the 2001 movie, Moulin Rouge!, the character played by Nicole Kidman dies of tuberculosis. Both the operas La Bohème and La Traviata feature a character who dies of consumption. “As she is slipping away, the victim of a disease that destroys the lungs and causes incapacitating weakness, [the heroine] bolts upright….and manages to belt out the final aria of the opera before she dies and the curtain falls. When it comes to death from pulmonary TB, drama and reality could not be more different.” (Dyer, pg. 79) Claude Monet painted his wife, Camille, as she lay dying of consumption. Edvard Munch, probably far better known for “The Scream,” painted his older sister Johane Sophie as she, too, laying dying of the dread disease.

Painting of "Camille on Her Deathbed", Claude Monet, 1879.
“Camille on Her Deathbed”, Claude Monet, 1879. Source: https://bit.ly/3zTTwZ8

With such a seemingly strong connection between consumption/tuberculosis/TB and the arts, it almost became a question of the chicken or the egg.  Did the artist’s/author’s/etc. sensitivity stem from his/her affliction, or did s/he come down with the disease because of a natural sensitivity, i.e., frailty? In the literary sense of the word, it was Romantic.

The story of John Keats perhaps best illustrates this. A young former medical student, Keats had ample experience with the disease (here called phthisis), both his mother and older brother had died from it. By age 23 Keats was showing signs, too. Two years later he awoke to find a single spot of blood on his sheets, and wrote, “It’s arterial blood…that blood is my death warrant, I must die.” And die he did, within only a few months, at age 26, with lungs completely destroyed. And yet, in that interim, he wrote some of his best poetry.

“The Sick Child”, Edvard Munch, 1885-1886. Source: https://bit.ly/2X4cVIT

“In succeeding decades, Keats’ illness came to exemplify spes phthisica, a condition believed peculiar to consumptives in which physical wasting led to euphoric flowering of the passionate and creative aspects of the soul. The prosaic human, it was said, became poetic as the body expired from consumption, genius bursting forth from the fevered combustion of ordinary talent, the body burning so that the creative soul could be released. Keats’ great poetic output during his last year was considered a direct consequence of consumption. Spes phthisica, which sought to make sense of the senseless and give purpose to purposeless suffering and death, came to be viewed as a prerequisite for creative genius. French author Alexandre Dumas fils wrote, “It was the fashion to suffer from the lungs; everybody was consumptive, poets especially; it was good form to spit blood after any emotion that was at all sensational, and to die before reaching the age of thirty.” Dumas’ colleague, the poet Théophile Gautier, wrote, “…I could not have accepted as a lyrical poet anyone weighing more than ninety-nine pounds.” A subsequent alleged decline in the arts was even blamed on decline in tuberculosis incidence.”

As outlandish as all this sounds, the Victorians even incorporated TB symptoms into their ideal of feminine beauty. “Many women who did not suffer from the usually fatal disease worked to mimic its characteristics, using makeup and starvation diets to appear fragile, wan, thin, pale, with flushed cheeks and ruby-red lips.” Why? Well, it was believed that TB heightened sexuality, was an aphrodisiac that made women more mysterious, seductive, and desirable. All while maintaining Victorian ideals of decorum and appropriate behavior, of course!

 Moving on from these fanciful ideas about tuberculosis, were you aware that Evansville once had a sanitarium for TB patients? In 1907-1908, the Anti-Tuberculosis Society established a privately funded tent colony (fresh air as treatment was the current rage) on a farm on Boehne Camp Road, between Hogue Road and Upper Mount Vernon Road Patients there enjoyed rest, fresh air, and sunshine. In 1924, the county assumed responsibility for the facility and it was renamed Boehne Hospital, in honor of former Evansville mayor and U.S. Congressman John W. Boehne, who donated the land.

Old Boehne Hospital, circa 2012, now razed. Source: UASC, RH 031-023.
Old Boehne Hospital, circa 2012, now razed. Source: UASC, RH 031-023.

Sometime in the mid-1960s the hospital closed. The buildings served a number of different purposes over the years until almost all were razed.

Old Boehne Hospital Administration Building, n.d. Source: UASC, RH 031-022.

The old administration building, built in 1936 and originally housed the kitchen, bakery, laundry, theatre, offices and employee housing for the hospital, was left standing, it has since been renovated into 4 luxury suite apartments, each with 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms and about 1500 sq. ft. of living space. Located at 816 Boehne Camp Road, this is now called The Restoration Boehne Camp.

Tuberculosis researcher Emily Melzer perhaps sums this up the best. “Suffering is commonly known to inspire artists, but the relationship between art and tuberculosis is stranger than the usual pairing of pain and creativity. So much so that it has intrigued medical and art historians, resulting in entire books dedicated to understanding how such a destructive disease has been so often portrayed as “romantic”, “gentle” and generally pleasant There is definitely nothing romantic about my lab experiments, but every now and then when I look at these little bugs under the microscope, I wonder if it could perhaps be considered art as well. Looking at them, you would hardly believe that such tiny organisms could cause so much trouble and have such an immense impact on society.”

Resources Consulted

“Arts: Tuberculosis and Victorian Literature.” Microbes Rule the World: Effects of Disease on History. Canvas Guides Network, 2017.

Basic TB Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016.

Daniel, Thomas M. “The history of tuberculosis.” Respiratory Medicine, v.100, issue 11, November 2006, p. 1862-1870

Dyer, Carol. Tuberculosis. ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central

Lemlein, Rhoda F. “Influence of Tuberculosis on the Work of Visual Artists: Several Prominent Examples.” Leonardo, v. 14, no. 2 (Spring, 1981), pp. 114-117.

May, Thomas. Consuming Consumption: Tuberculosis on the Opera Stage. San Francisco Opera blog, n.d.

Melzer, Emily. Tuberculosis – A Romantic Disease? That’s Life [Science] blog, November 13, 2017.

Morens, David M. “At the deathbed of consumptive art.” Emerging infectious diseases, v. 8:no.11, November 2002, p. 1353-1358.

Murray, John F. “A Century of Tuberculosis.” American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, v.169: no. 11, 2004.Vilaplana, Cristina. “A literary approach to tuberculosis: lessons learned from Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, and Katherine Mansfield.” International Journal of Infectious Diseases, v. 56, March 2017, p.283-285.

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