- More than any other disease, tuberculosis (TB), or consumption, shaped the social history of 19th-century Europe. Its impact on the artistic world was just as powerful, with artists oﬀering their own commentaries on the disease through painting, poetry and opera. Consumption was almost a deﬁning feature of Romanticism, the style of expression for which the era was known.
- … Indeed, the preponderance of Romantic writers, painters and composers with TB created a myth that consumption drove artistic genius. Many assumed that the spes phthisica, a kind of elation that intermingles with depression during the disease, elevated the mind.
- The truth, of course, is that TB’s impact on the arts was merely a reﬂection of the savagery with which it ravaged the general population – artists and everyone else. In 1801, up to one third of all Londoners died from TB. Yet its course was insidious, with some victims dying slowly over months, and others – years. Talented victims, all of them doomed before the age of antibiotics, had time (paraphrasing Keats) for their pens to glean their teeming brains, in spite of, not because of, the disease.
- Then as now, the disease is caused by the transmission of the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis in sputum from infected individuals. TB germs land in their victim’s lungs and proliferate, provoking inﬂammation, severe coughing and breathlessness. Fevers and sweats ensue. Eventually, pulmonary blood vessels rupture, contributing to the anaemia that makes complexions pale. Apart from consumption, the disease comes with many synonyms. The word ‘phthisis’, from the Greek, meaning a wasting disease, was in use before we came up with the name TB. The nasty-sounding name ‘scrofulae’, derived from the Latin for ‘little pigs’, referred to swellings that appear around the body when bacteria spread beyond the lungs, was also widely used.
- Epidemic TB erupted with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. Expanding cities, ﬁlth and persistent human contact fuelled the disease. Like TB, Romanticism arose in response to growing urban squalor. Artists evoked rural idylls and mythical classicism to counterbalance its horror. Later in the 19th century, when city-planning reduced overcrowding, both TB and reactionary Romanticism retreated.
- Although TB didn’t end with the 19th century, its link to a romantic ideal did. There was nothing noble or lofty when confronted by the stark truth of noxious germs gnawing away inside their victims to cause the disease once known as scrofula.
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