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Health Crises throughout History (January 2022): Tuberculosis


When analyzing the effects of tuberculosis, two consistent themes emerge in scholarship. These include a scientific approach to better understand the disease, but also a social history approach to see how disease affects society, normalcy, and routine. 

Helen Bynum traces tuberculosis’s historical roots while also appreciating the current and potentially dangerous presence it has in society in Spitting Blood: The History of Tuberculosis. Investigating the impact of the disease from ancient times, Bynum analyzes the molecular structure of the disease through a scientific lens, shedding light on its complexity. However, Bynum goes beyond science using cultural references like John Keats and George Orwell to draw a social interest and show how this disease permeated different factions of society.

This important theme is also seen in Barbara Bates’s Bargaining for Life: A Social History of Tuberculosis, 1876–1938, in which she explores the depths of the individual experience. Each section takes on a new era in history as Bates documents stories involving care and treatment, socioeconomic status, and the role that racism played in hospitalization and equity. 

Racial segregation within the United States prevented equal treatment and healthcare. In Infectious Fear: Politics, Disease, and the Health Effects of Segregation, Samuel Kelton Roberts exhibits how the Black community faced higher infection rates than whites due to environmental and social factors, such as housing conditions and access to reasonable healthcare. Roberts further argues that people of color were largely neglected by healthcare officials due to racial motives.

Works Cited