10 Ways Tuberculosis Changed the World


Tuberculosis (TB), also known as consumption, is a deadly bacterium that attacks people’s lungs. It’s passed through sneezing, coughing or coming into contact with an infected person’s saliva, and at the turn of the 19th century it was the deadliest disease in history, having killed one in every seven people who had ever lived. While a vaccine was first used on humans in 1921, it wasn’t widely spread until after World War II. It’s still a disease that ravishes poorer parts of the world, where people can’t afford and/or don’t have access to treatment.

For centuries TB was a terrifying disease, not just because of how deadly it was but because anyone, of any race, gender, age and status could catch it seemingly out of nowhere. When someone did catch it they lost weight and suffered from fever, aches, pains and serious fits of coughing. It would sometimes take painful decades for people to die. People worldwide were terrified of TB, and as a result new inventions and trends emerged that changed the world.

10. Shorter Skirts


Before the discovery of germs and bacteria, people spit everywhere. And since women wore long skirts that dragged along the ground, their dress could pick up spit and possible TB bacteria as they walked. If the woman was a mother with small children, she could easily infect them because children have a tendency to hang onto their mother’s skirts. The longer the skirts, the more dangerous the health risk. Women started to hem their skirts so that they didn’t drag on the ground, so if you enjoy short skirts you can thank your ancestors for spitting.

9. Grooming of Beards


Prior to learning that TB was spread via sneezes and coughs, men often had long beards, quite possibly for health benefits. Some people thought that beards worked as a respirator and protected against diseases of the mouth, throat and lungs. Plus, it protected men’s faces from the cold. But that all changed when it was discovered that TB can stay contagious in saliva for up to a day. If spittle got caught in a man’s beard it made the man, and anyone he touched, susceptible to TB.

Health officials instilled the fear that the beard could pass on the horrible disease if they were to kiss their wife or children and encouraged men to start shaving. The campaign made facial hair styles change drastically — if a man had a beard it was neatly trimmed, otherwise most men were clean-shaven or had small mustaches. Since beards were associated with the transmission of TB, well-kept facial hair (or none at all) made men look healthier, cleaner and ultimately more attractive.

8. Reclining Chairs


Is there anything better than coming home after a long day, sitting down in your favorite recliner, and putting your feet up? That small luxury of everyday life actually has its roots in TB treatment. When someone was suffering from TB, they were often bed ridden for years. Reclining chairs were invented to help with treatment.

American doctor Edward Livingston Trudeau, a pivotal figure in the study of TB, opened up a cottage sanatorium that treated TB patients. An early idea of Dr. Trudeau was that sufferers of TB could be helped with enough bed rest. As a result, they developed reclining chairs called “Cure Chairs.” The chairs would reduce movement from a bed to a chair and allow people to get the optimal amount of rest. The design of these chairs would go on to influence day beds, recliners and loungers — all the chairs we now love lazing on.

7. Waffle Cone


A popular treat in 1890 was ice cream served as “penny licks.” Ice cream vendors would sell small amounts of ice cream for a penny in glass cups that were about the size of a shot glass. People would buy the penny lick, lick the ice cream out and give the glass back to the vendor, who would fill it again and sell it to the next customer without washing out the glass. People just didn’t know that that was how diseases were spread.

By 1899 penny licks were banned in places like London, because they were pretty sure they helped spread TB. By 1900, ice cream started to be served in a pastry in New York. Then at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair the waffle cone that we know and love was introduced to help serve and transport single servings of ice cream, making the snack even more delicious.

6. Front Porches


One of the earliest theories for treating TB, dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks, was getting fresh air, a treatment sometimes called the “wilderness cure.” At one of the first treatment centers for TB in the United States, the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium at Saranac Lake, New York, they built giant front porches where patients would rest and sleep in any season.

Since Adirondack was one of the leading authorities on the disease, many people tried to emulate it and added front porches, sometimes referred to as sleeping porches, to their homes. Since there were so many sufferers, front decks became more popular around the turn of the 20th century.

It was eventually proven that fresh air wasn’t the cure for TB, but people did start to see the benefit of outdoor living. Instead of fighting TB, porches and sunrooms helped people stay cool and enjoy the outdoors without dealing too much with the elements.

5. Disposable, Single Use Items


As we’ve already noted, before the evolution of germ theory people often didn’t mind eating or drinking from items covered in other people’s saliva. After the health hazards of that practice came to light, innovations were needed. It was during this time that two famous everyday products started to flourish. The first is the Dixie Cup, which was invented in 1912 to replace “tin dippers,” communal cups that people used to drink from free water sources.

In 1907, Bostonian Lawrence Luellen started working on a design for a one-time-use disposable paper cup. By 1908 he had not only the cup but a partner, Hugh Moore, who made vending machines that would dispense water for a penny. They even called the disposable cup the Health Cup. It became Dixie Cup in 1919, after a popular doll at the time to set them apart from their competition. The invention of the soda fountain ensured that Dixie Cups became a mainstay around the world.

Then, in 1924, the Kleenex Company started manufacturing the first facial tissues in the Western world. Originally advertised as a way to remove makeup and cold cream, Kleenex didn’t advertise that they were a way to stop the spread of disease because people still predominately used handkerchiefs. However, Kleenex saw an opportunity after a health campaign said that if you had to spit, it was best to do it into a tissue or newspaper and then burn it. Since then, Kleenex and other facial tissues have become an excellent way to combat TB and other contagious diseases. Both of these inventions showed that there was a market and a need for one-time disposable items like razors, pens and bottles of water.

4. More Parks


As mentioned earlier, people used to believe that fresh air in a natural setting would help prevent people from catching TB and aid those who suffered from it. But how do people who live in cities and don’t have easy access to transportation to rural areas enjoy nature? The answer was to develop more parks within city limits.

The parks weren’t just used to help more people get fresh air — at times they were used to quarantine people with TB. One example is Maybury State Park in Michigan, which used to house a sanatorium for TB treatment. By 1975 the sanatorium was torn down, and it’s now a beautiful state park with paths for biking, hiking and walking. Public parks were created throughout the world simply because they thought it would help combat TB.

3. No More Spitting


In contemporary culture, someone spitting in a public place is considered quite crass. But it wasn’t always that way — before the scientific community and the general public accepted the theory of germs and bacteria, they thought that illness happened because something was wrong with a person’s level of bodily fluids. So spitting in public wasn’t a big deal. And since it wasn’t a big deal, people would spit everywhere — the roads, theaters, public transportation, shops and taverns, everywhere.

That all changed after it was discovered that spitting is an excellent way to spread TB. There was a huge public health campaign to stop spitting in public. In the United States, the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis (which later became the American Lung Association) shamed the act of spitting, calling it a “filthy habit.” Their message was simple — stop spitting or you may condemn someone to a horrible death. And it worked! After the campaign, they noticed that TB levels dropped dramatically.

2. Migration to the Southwestern United States


Contracting TB could mean a long and painful death sentence. People would do anything to cure it, including gambling on unorthodox treatment methods. Capitalizing on this trend, cities in the southwestern United States looking to grow advertised to people with TB, claiming that they could live a healthier life if they moved out to where the weather was warmer. This is how cities like Denver, Albuquerque and Los Angeles grew. Other times, people with TB would move and set up settlements. For example, Pasadena, California started as a settlement of people from Indiana infected with TB.

While the climate did help people with ailments, it wasn’t a cure. And the more populated these cities got with people with TB, the faster the disease spread across the country.

1. Generations of People With Better Hygiene


One of the most terrifying aspects of TB was the fact that it could infect children just as easily as it could infect an adult. In fact, for a long time people thought that it was hereditary. When the truth was discovered, there was a drastic change in how and what children were taught about hygiene and healthcare.

A campaign called the Modern Health Crusade encouraged children to perform 11 daily tasks, which included washing their hands before every meal and brushing their teeth twice a day. To make it more interesting for children, the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis gave them stamps which would allow them to rise through the ranks of the crusaders — for example, enough stamps would promote you in rank from sage to knight. The revolutionary campaign, which launched in 1915, reached seven million children. These children developed lifelong habits which have been passed on for generations, and those 11 daily tasks created the standard for healthy hygiene that we follow today.

Robert Grimminck is a Canadian crime-fiction writer. You can follow him on Facebook on Twitter, or visit his website.

TB isn't the only disease to change the world.


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