I recently ran across this incredible image, a painting by Edvard Munch. He called it “the sick child.” The artist painted from memory his younger sister, ill with tuberculosis.
It has taken only a couple of generations for Americans to forget one of the great killers of history — tuberculosis. Sixty years ago Rene and Jean Dubois wrote a historical study of TB that still stands as a landmark study. It’s a fascinating book, written in 1952, just about the time we at last had effective antibiotic treatment for TB.
Tuberculosis was the most common cause of death during the nineteenth century, responsible for around a third of deaths. Think about that for a minute — a third of all deaths. Many, many of those dying were children. Adolescents and young adults were also common victims. I find Munch’s image of his sister, with her pallid eyes and hollow cheeks, to be much more haunting than the artist’s more famous images, such as the series collectively called “The Scream“. This one is the face of innocent suffering. TB killed her, as it did millions of other children.
Because of antibiotics tuberculosis no longer kills children in America. But the bacterium is a crafty one, devising ways to resist antibiotic action. We are really only one jump ahead of this ancient scourge.