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White Plague

OPB | May 17, 2010 9 p.m. | Updated: July 25, 2013 11:34 a.m.

Also called consumption or “wasting disease,” tuberculosis once ran rampant in America. It still claims 8 million lives a year worldwide. Oregon led the Northwest in the fight against TB in the early 1900s. Yet even then, and until the advent of modern antibiotics, most treatments remained crude and ineffective. OREGON EXPERIENCE explores the historical impact of TB in Oregon.

“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., OHSU 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 Frederic 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.

Today, in the Pacific Northwest, tuberculosis may not be an everyday word. But many Oregonians remember when it was. As recently as the 1950s and 650s, 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.

Resources

 

Web sites

American Lung Association of Oregon

History of the Oregon State Tuberculosis Hospital

State of Oregon, Tuberculosis Control

Stop TB Partnership

World Lung Foundation - Images of Tuberculosis around the globe

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Tuberculosis

Science Insider: Multi-Drug Resistant TB Reaches Record Levels in Western RussiaScientific American: Multidrug Resistant Tuberculosis in Russia

Broadcast Date: May 17, 2010

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OREGON EXPERIENCE is a co-production of Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Oregon Historical Society.