Medical Notes: Youth goes pale and spectre thin, then dies

COMPARED TO political, economic, social, cultural and even climatic history, all tirelessly mined by professional historians, little is known about the diseases of the past. Yet they affected the lives of millions in two different ways. The diseases themselves often changed historic events. But more pervasive, though even more difficult to document, were the widely perceived images of the illnesses, some close reflections of reality, others recognisable but transformed by popular imagination.

Of no affliction was this more true than of tuberculosis. Though undoubtedly ancient - evidence of it has been discovered in prehistoric remains and Egyptian mummies - as a great killer it burst on to the European scene with the industrial revolution. The England of Keats, Shelley, and the boy Dickens led the way, as she did in steam power and manufacturing industry, but soon the images of consumption were instantly recognisable everywhere.

The disease was often described as "white" - the white plague, the white death, the white killer - and this was more than a reference to the pallor associated with chronic blood loss.

To the European middle classes, who barely existed at the beginning of the tuberculous century and very nearly ruled the world by the end of it, tuberculosis posed an ethical conundrum. The illnesses and deaths of old people could be represented as natural phenomena, essential for the survival of the species. Illnesses in middle age too could sometimes be seen as just retributions for profligate or unwise living, the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons.

At the other extreme of life, a horrendous infant mortality was accepted as a law of nature. But tuberculosis, slowly killing the young in their prime - "where youth goes pale, and spectre thin, and dies" - crossing social barriers as well as national frontiers, needed a moral explanation. It became the image of sacrifice and atonement, Napoleon's son, the Eaglet, did not simply die in his gilded Austrian cage; he was consciously atoning for the bloodshed and suffering caused by his father.

But there was also a complementary image - or several complementary images. "Omnis phthisicus alax" - every tuberculous a lecher - was an oft-quoted saying; and there was truth in that too. The disease struck down and often confined to bed, house or sanatorium exile young people in their procreative as well as their creative flowering, longing to perform, yet able only to dream. Watteau's infinitely sad Departure for Cythera, the island where Venus taught her acolytes the art of love, is a pictorial elegy to lost sexual prowess. The artist died two years later, aged 36.

But above all, tuberculosis came to symbolise the longing for the unattainable - for a cure in the case of patients (like Katherine Mansfield, Franz Kafka or Robert Louis Stevenson) or simply for the kind of total happiness that is granted only rarely and then only for a few fleeting seconds to ordinary mortals.

The "message" of Chek-hov's last and greatest plays - all the pining and quiet desperation - sometimes puzzles literary critics: why could the three sisters, daughters of the valiant General Prozorov, not do the practical and the obvious and simply take the train to Moscow? After Ivanov tuberculosis is never mentioned by name in any of the texts, just as it was rarely mentioned in the correspondence of sanatorium patients; but pining was exactly what Chekhov himself and countless fellow tuberculous did in their remote Yaltas; and quiet desperation was their destiny.

But even in desperation there was always hope and, as they went on hoping to the end, and often in a breathless hurry, an astonishing number created some of the greatest works of art, music and literature.

Thomas Dormandy is the author of `The White Death: a history of tuberculosis', (Hambledon Press, pounds 19.99)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links