How We Conquered Consumption
From novels like Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Victor Hugo's Les Misérables to Verdi's opera La traviata and Edvard Munch's oil painting The Sick Child, you may have wondered about the disease everyone in that era seemed to fear—consumption.
Edvard Munch, The Sick Child, 1885–86.
Tuberculosis, also known as consumption, is a disease caused by bacteria that usually attacks the lungs, and at the turn of the 20th century, the leading cause of death in the United States.
As the most feared disease in the world, the disease was known as the "Great White Plague" (due to the extreme paleness of those affected), striking down the young and old, the rich and poor. It seemed no one was safe from tuberculosis. It's no wonder that it played such a large role in literature, art and opera.
Now, tuberculosis is largely controlled in the United States (although still an issue worldwide). So, what happened? The simple answer: the people took action.
Driven by the idea that citizens could do something about tuberculosis, in 1904 a young doctor named Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau founded the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis, which would later be known as the American Lung Association. A pioneer in the science of tuberculosis, Dr. Trudeau felt passionately that this national association should be something more than a medical society devoted to the study of tuberculosis. Driven by the idea that citizens could do something about tuberculosis, the American Lung Association was the first to combine the energies of physicians and laypersons in the fight against death and disease.
Over a difficult 50-year fight, the Association played a critical role in developing and funding increasingly effective weapons to prevent, detect and treat the disease. With a group of volunteers led by Emily Bissell, the organization launched the Christmas Seals® campaign in 1907, the first "direct mail" fundraiser that has become an enduring symbol of the power of volunteers to battle disease. In 1950, with research funding from the American Lung Association, Dr. Edith Lincoln found isoniazid prevented the further spread of infection when given to household members of TB patients.
Although the disease is now largely controlled in the United States, it remains a tremendous problem worldwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2013 there were 1.5 million TB-related deaths in the world. The Lung Association continues its work today to raise awareness about TB and to fund research on tuberculosis.
"TB control in the U.S. is a success story that highlights the importance of education and funding promising research," said Harold P. Wimmer, National President and CEO of the American Lung Association. "Trudeau's legacy is the power of connecting with people and communities to recognize that something must be done to save lives, and the Lung Association continues to do this today, as our work to support lung health is not yet done. Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer of both women and men, and the American Lung Association has made defeating lung cancer a strategic imperative of the organization."
Just as tuberculosis was a great health threat in the early 20th century, we now face the threat of lung cancer, and once again, the Lung Association has taken action. Aimed at raising awareness and funding research for the treatment of lung cancer, the Lung Association has launched the LUNG FORCE initiative, and has doubled its investment in lung cancer research.
"We continue to honor Dr. Trudeau's legacy by being bold. Our work will not end until we defeat lung cancer and achieve our mission—a world free of lung disease."