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World Watch

 July 31, 2014
The American Disease

A century ago, tuberculosis -- "consumption" -- was a terrifying disease. It killed slowly -- but it killed.

The sight of someone growing more frail, coughing their life away, was a familiar one, and lent realism to the story of Mimi in La Boheme, Marguerite in The Lady of the Camellias, Violetta in La Traviata.

If someone had a persistent or productive cough, the fear that it might be consumption immediately caused loved ones to look at the handkerchief into which they were coughing. Blood in the handkerchief was an almost certain sign.

People would go to sanitariums (or, with a later name change, sanatoriums) hoping for, if not a cure, then at least a prolongation of life, but there was no actual treatment beyond rest, good food, cleanliness, and "good air."

The disease simply ran its course.

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