Vampires, Consumption and the Mysteries of Medical History

Perhaps the most concerning thing about the late anthropocene is its ability to bring us exciting new versions of terrifying old diseases. In some cases, like pneumonia, malaria, or tuberculosis, those diseases never truly left us, but have been stripped of all but a small portion of their former power. With the advent of “new-age” medicines, returned anew from the pre-vaccination age to offer hope – faint and often false – to those unable or unwilling to access adequate medical care, I am reminded often of the issues of the age-old disease of consumption.

Here, I’ve compiled a few sources to look at how people dealt with consumption – known now as tuberculosis – in the past.

Lord Byron: romantic, melodramatic consumptive
  • Romanticizing Tuberculosis: Poetry, Prose, Opera, and Society of the Romantic Era:
    The Romantic Era peaked from 1800 through 1850. This era saw an increased emphasis on individualism and the self, and a growing sense of nationalism. The works of the period relied on sensory description, using romance to cloud otherwise bleak situations. For society, consumption was linked to poetic and aesthetic qualities, to the extent that the consumptive’s pale and slender features were viewed as highly desirable characteristics. This reverence allowed for portrayals and perceptions of consumption to be clouded by romantic images, until scientists were able to identify the tuberculosis causing bacteria and its severity became better understood. (Gabriela Gordon Martinez, Texas State University)
  • The origins of Tuberculosis in North America are shrouded in mystery – but we do know a few of the “cures”:
    Folklorist and Food for the Dead author Michael Bell estimates that there are 60 known examples of anti-vampire rituals in 18th- and 19th-century New England, and several others elsewhere in the country. These rituals were most common in eastern Connecticut and western Rhode Island, says Brian Carroll, a history professor at Central Washington University (CWU) who is writing a book on the subject.
    Carroll believes these anti-vampire rituals were “introduced as a medical procedure at the time of the American Revolution” by German doctors who worked for the Hessian forces. Because of this, he thinks the New England vampires were based on the German Nachzehrer. Unlike blood-sucking Romanian vampires, New England’s vampires [were thought to] stay in their graves, harming the living through “sympathetic magic” from afar, he argues.
  • No one knew what caused “consumption” until 1882:
    Of all achievements in medicine, the successful treatment of tuberculosis has had one of the greatest impacts on society. Tuberculosis was a leading cause of disease and a mortal enemy of humanity for millennia. The first step in finding a cure was the discovery of the cause of tuberculosis by Robert Koch in 1882. The sanatorium movement that began shortly afterward in Europe, and soon spread to the United States, brought attention to the plight of afflicted persons, and catalyzed public health action. The antituberculosis benefit of streptomycin was announced in 1945, although application was limited by the rapid development of resistance. para-Aminosalicylic acid, also discovered in 1945, when combined with streptomycin was found to greatly reduce the occurrence of drug resistance. In 1952, isoniazid opened the modern era of treatment; it was inexpensive, well tolerated, and safe. In the early 1960s, ethambutol was shown to be effective and better tolerated than para-aminosalicylic acid, which it replaced. In the 1970s, rifampin found its place as a keystone in the therapy of tuberculosis. The use of rifampin enabled the course of treatment to be reduced to nine months. Incorporation of pyrazinamide into the first-line regimen led to a further reduction of treatment duration to six months. Treatment of multiple drug–resistant tuberculosis remains a difficult problem requiring lengthy treatment with toxic drugs. However, shortened regimens show promise, and two new drugs, bedaquiline and delamanid, have demonstrated effectiveness in preliminary studies and are being used for extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis. ( John F. Murray, Dean E. Schraufnagel, and Philip C. Hopewell )