Friday, March 30, 2012

The Romantic Plague

As personable and chatty as Agnes Tully’s mystery man (or man-of-the-cloth, as it may be) has been in his letters, with the next letter comes a radical change. Could it be that he was, indeed, perturbed at Agnes’ lack of response to his letters? Or was there another reason for this change?

Answering that question calls for a brief refresher course on tuberculosis of the pre-wonder-drug variety.

First, a confession: in riffling through the stack of letters that Agnes had saved, I belatedly uncovered an empty envelope dated May of 1909—the time of Dan E. Reilly’s letter from Arizona. The pre-printed envelope reveals the location of his stay in Tucson: St. Mary’s Hospital and Sanatorium. He clearly was not traveling for anything other than personal health reasons.

Tucson, with its dry desert air and abundant sunshine, was developing a reputation as a healing center for lung ailments in the early 1900s. Not to be outdone in the race to become the sanatorium destination of choice, places like East Las Vegas, New Mexico, with its relatively-convenient railway access, also boasted an array of treatment options. Resort-styled destinations were by no means the only alternative for treatment. Orders such as the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth saw such facilities as St. Anthony’s Sanitarium as a ministry, providing an alternate impetus for opening accessible institutions.

By the turn of the last century, tuberculosis was considered, internationally, to be an urgent health problem. The contagion was particularly difficult to contain in urban areas, and cities such as Chicago saw a significant percentage of their populations succumb to the disease. Indeed, during the time of these letters from Father Reilly, a good number of another branch of the Chicago Tully clan fell victim to that very malady.

At the very same time that national public health policy was awakening to the seriousness of the epidemic, the “White Plague” was enjoying a renaissance as a romantic notion. Witness the fact that so many well-known creative sorts faced—and wrote about, even envied the role of—the slow death of “consumption.” Having to suffer from the ravages of tuberculosis was seen to confer upon the victim everything from sensitivity to spiritual purity. If ever it were possible for an ailment to assume a reputation as a disease célèbre, tuberculosis would be the most likely nominee. In Agnes Tully’s time, Russian writer Anton Chekhov, a 1904 victim, became one of the most recent in a long line of famous names to have suffered from TB. Composer Frédéric Chopin suffered from it. Lord Byron pined for such a “romantic” end. No less than five French authors contrived to fix tuberculosis prominently in their novels. Though tuberculosis became known as the White Plague long before the start of that century, the resurgence of the disease’s moniker unbelievably served as fashion inspiration. Not to be outdone in the culture statements of those times, fashionable women sought to emulate the “consumptive” look by using makeup that painted their face in a pale cast.

And yet, tuberculosis was serious as death. Without the help of today’s medicines, there was no way out—other than a remarkably strong constitution.

During the process of watching that invincible disease run its course, other than the overt, well-known physical symptoms, what else could be expected?

After reading Father Dan Reilly’s letters—and having a sneak peak at the one to come next—I wondered if the symptoms of tuberculosis would cause any variances in mood or affect. That may seem like a question with a no-brainer answer: of those with untreated active cases of TB, as would be necessitated by this time period pre-dating the advent of the “wonder drug,” over fifty percent died within five years of onset of the disease.

I would speculate that that alone would be sufficient cause for some severe depression.

However, I am not alone in that supposition, nor do we need to leave it to an uneducated guess. Within this past decade, a scholarly paper discussed that very issue: the prevalence of mood disorders among TB patients.

Even those ancient diagnostic labels that Father Reilly referred to in his own letter indicate that possibility. He called his malady “nervous prostration,” which can be defined as “an emotional disorder.”

Could this be what brought about the change between his last letter and the next?

Above left: "La Miseria," oil on canvas, Cristobal Rojas, 1886; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

1 comment:

  1. I too have been reading up more about the TB crisis in the US at the turn of the last century -- focusing on Buffalo, New York. It killed one set of my great-grandparents, which is why my grandfather (and his 4 older brothers) was orphaned as a toddler.

    Can you imagine what had to go through someone's mind back then, after receiving the diagnosis? Knowing the possibilities that it would turn chronic, and might easily infect their loved ones?

    -- Colleen @ Colleen & Jeff's Roots


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