‘The Forgotten Plague’ Review: How TB Changed America
By the beginning of the 19th century, tuberculosis had killed one in seven of all the people who’d ever lived.
By John Anderson in the Wall Street Journal
The Forgotten Plague
This writer’s great-grandmother died of tuberculosis. So did her 26-year-old son. Several of her infant children died of diphtheria. Her granddaughter (my mother) contracted encephalitis as a consequence of mumps. The point of this isn’t family history, but that these were not extraordinary events from a very ancient time. Diseases now considered anachronisms once slew people in droves.
“The Forgotten Plague,” a title that carries no small amount of irony, refers to TB, or “consumption,” to put a romantic spin on it, which could take decades to claim its victim and had, by the beginning of the 19th century, killed one in seven of all the people who’d ever lived. Until its resurgence at the height of the AIDS epidemic, TB itself was considered an artifact. Much like the measles.
The warhorse series that is “American Experience,” which is presenting”The Forgotten Plague,” has, over the years, ticked down a list of people, places and things that have made a difference to American life. American death has never really gotten equal time. (Robert Kenner’s “Influenza 1918” aired in 1998; “The Great Fever,” the Adriana Bosch-Michael Chin film on yellow fever, aired in 2006.) While the timing of “Plague” is purely serendipitous, the fact that it arrives during our politically charged antivaxxer controversy makes “American Experience” more urgent than it’s been in years. Director Chana Gazit doesn’t stray much from the standard “AE” formula, but she does have a potent story.
It begins, after some historic prelude, with Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, who lost a daughter to the so-called “wasting disease” and contracted it himself. But he found that when he got out of the city, where TB seemed to flourish, and into the Adirondacks of New York state, the cold fresh air seemed to thwart the disease. People had similar results in the dry atmosphere of the Southwest, but Trudeau founded his sanitarium at Saranac Lake, initiating what would be a tuberculosis industry.
The role TB played in the development of America is the fascinating part of “The Forgotten Plague,” which avails itself of a wealth of archival photography and interviews, some with the Trudeau sanitarium’s surviving patients. When the German microbiologist Robert Koch discovered in the late 1800s that tuberculosis was contagious, it altered life in very basic ways. Handkerchief sales went way up. Cities that seemed to offer hope—Los Angeles, for instance—no longer welcomed the sick. Beards went out of fashion, and guilt was in vogue: The idea that TB simply ran in families was one thing; that a mother had given it to her child was quite another. It’s an awful thought. And one that “The Forgotten Plague” makes impossible not to think about.