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[Perspectives] Tuberculosis

No disease better illustrates the difficulties of early modern medical practice than tuberculosis. Arguments over heredity, nutrition, environment, and contagion all came together within the potent cultural frame of a condition that, by the early 19th century, killed about one in five Europeans. Rather than claiming thousands in swift, savage epidemics tuberculosis took its victims slowly, racking their bodies and exhausting their minds. Older names for the disease—consumption and pthisis (from a Greek word meaning to waste away)—reflect the way in which it seemed to destroy the body from within.