Publications and Research
Fall January 1991
In the wake of the bacterial revolution after Robert Koch identified the tuberculosis bacillus, medical and public health professionals classified the various forms of consumption and phthisis as a single disease--tuberculosis. In large measure, historians have adopted that perspective. While there is undoubtedly a great deal of truth in this conceptualization, we argue that it obscures almost as much as it illuminates. By collapsing the nineteenth-century terms phthisis and consumption into tuberculosis, we maintain that historians have not understood the effect of non-bacterial consumption on working-class populations who suffered from the symptoms of coughing, wasting away, and losing weight. In this essay, we explore how, in the nineteenth century, what we now recognize as silicosis was referred to as miners' "con," stonecutters' phthisis, and other industry-specific forms of phthisis and consumption. We examine how the later and narrower view of the bacterial origins of tuberculosis limited the medical professions' ability to diagnose and understand diseases caused by industrial dust. This paper explores the contention that developed at the turn of the century over occupational lung disease and tuberculosis and the circumstances that led to the unmasking of silicosis as a disease category.
This work was originally published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine.