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Arts & Culture

OREGON EXPERIENCE: The White Plague

OPB | May 10, 2010 4:12 a.m. | Updated: Dec. 5, 2013 11:14 a.m.

“If we all searched our family histories, we would find that at some point, we have all been touched by the tragic disease tuberculosis.
Jay D. Kravitz, M.D., Global Health Center

Tuberculosis. Consumption. White Plague. Ancient Egyptian king Tutankamen died of it. So did a long list of other well-known historical characters: from Frédéric Chopin to Stephen Foster; Eleanor Roosevelt and Ho Chi Mihn; Sarah Bernhardt and W.C. Fields and many more. American singer Jimmie Rodgers recorded “T.B. Blues” before succumbing to the sickness himself. Tuberculosis has plagued humanity for a long, long time. And in many parts of the world, TB still reigns as one of the deadliest of all diseases.

“White Plague,” the next episode of the OREGON EXPERIENCE series explores the history of tuberculosis in Oregon and elsewhere. Airing on Monday, May 17 at 9pm, the program, produced by OPB’s Eric Cain, portrays what had been the real immediacy of the threat. “White Plague” employs excerpts from old films and personal accounts from two individuals — each a one-time patient in a TB sanitorium, but each experiencing a very different outcome.

Today, in the Pacific Northwest, tuberculosis may not be an everyday word. But many Oregonians remember when it was. As recently as the 1940s and ‘50s, children lined up at school for TB skin tests. Mobile x-ray trucks parked at offices and factories to administer chest x-rays to workers.

Over the years, untold numbers of Oregonians developed active tuberculosis disease, and thousands tried to recuperate in one of the state’s public sanitoriums.  But many — perhaps even most – died from the disease, because until the 1950s, tuberculosis had no cure.

Oregon was the first Western state to build a public TB hospital and was, for a long time, the epicenter of TB surgery in the Pacific Northwest, because until 1946, Portland had the region’s only medical school. Two Portland doctors, brothers Ray and Ralph Maston, achieved national recognition for their open-chest procedures which helped pave the way to modern thoracic and heart surgery. But all of those facts have faded into history.

Oregonians don’t talk much about TB anymore, because they simply don’t see very much of it here. But elsewhere in the world, it continues to kill more than 2 million people a year.

Watch the complete program online anytime after May 17 at
opb.org/oregonexperience or at watch.opb.org.

About OREGON EXPERIENCE
OREGON EXPERIENCE is an exciting history series on OPB TV that brings to life fascinating stories that help us understand who we are and that reinforce our shared identity as Oregonians. The series, co-produced by the Oregon Historical Society and Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), takes advantage of the extensive film, video and stills from the archives of OHS and OPB, and draws upon the expertise of OHS researchers and historians. Each half-hour show features captivating characters — both familiar and forgotten — who have played key roles in building our state into the unique place we call home. Funding for OREGON EXPERIENCE is provided in part by Ann & Bill Swindells Charitable Trust, James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation and Oregon Cultural Trust.

About OPB
OPB is the largest cultural and education institution in the region, delivering excellence in public broadcasting to 1.5 million people each week through television, radio and the Internet. Widely recognized as a national leader in the public broadcasting arena, OPB is a major contributor to the program schedule that serves the entire country. OPB is one of the most-used and most-supported public broadcasting services in the country and is generously supported by 120,000 contributors.

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