Tuberculosis (TB) has a long history that dates back thousands of years. Advances in research and understanding of how the infection transmits have led to improvements in treatments and preventive measures such as the TB vaccine.
Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease that typically attacks the lungs. It spreads through the air, and a person may have a dormant type of the infection known as latent TB infection.
An estimated 1.8 billion people worldwide, or approximately one-quarter of the earth’s population, have latent TB infection with no symptoms. An estimated 10 million people in the world have active TB.
With treatment, most people can fully recover from TB. In previous centuries, TB was a much more deadly disease.
Read on to learn more about the history of TB. This article looks at the origins of TB, the history of testing, the development of the TB vaccine, and more.
According to the
- phthisis in ancient Greece
- tabes in ancient Roman
- schachepheth in ancient Hebrew
- the white plague in the 1700s
- consumption in the 1800s
In 1834, Dr. Johann Schonlein named the disease tuberculosis. However, it was not until March 24, 1882, that Dr. Robert Koch discovered Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which is the bacterium that causes TB.
The original human infection of TB dates back about
Archeologists discovered a child and mother with evidence of the disease in the sunken city of Atlit Yam off the coast of Israel.
The first two written accounts occurred 3,300 years ago in India and about 2,300 years ago in China.
The modern understanding of TB explains that TB spreads through the air. For example, this can happen if a person with active TB coughs or sneezes, and a person breathes in the particles.
A person may develop what is known as latent TB disease. This means they do not show any signs or symptoms, and they cannot transmit the infection to others. Some people with latent TB disease may develop an active infection at some point in their life.
People have a higher chance of developing active TB if they have a weakened or poorly developed immune system. People who are at higher risk of developing active TB include:
- older adults
- people with HIV
Other risk factors include being close to people who have active TB or living in an area of the world with a high infection rate.
Experts did not always know how TB spreads. For
TB testing developed over time with different researchers adding to the procedure. The history of skin testing for TB is
- 1890: Robert Koch developed tuberculin as a cure, but it did not work.
- 1907: Clemens von Pirquet developed a skin test that injects a small amount of tuberculin under the skin that measures the body’s reaction.
- 1908: Charles Mantoux updated the test to use a needle and syringe to inject tuberculin.
- 1930s: Florence Seibert developed a process to create a purified protein derivative (PPD) of tuberculin to use in the test.
- 1940: The United States started to use PPD.
The skin test has remained the same since the 1940s. In addition to the skin test, doctors now order X-rays and blood tests to check for TB infections.
This remains the only vaccination for TB, but it is not always effective in preventing infections. Medical professionals do not widely administer it in the United States.
Doctors provide the vaccine to infants and young children in countries where TB rates remain high.
TB treatment currently consists of antibiotics.
For latent TB infection, the most common antibiotic medication doctors prescribe is isoniazid (INH). A person typically takes this daily for 6–9 months.
For active TB disease, the most common treatment involves a combination of:
A person will typically take this combination for 6–12 months.
Prior to the development of antibiotics, treatments varied, sometimes by culture and time. Some treatments throughout the years
- cod liver oil, vinegar massages, and inhaling turpentine or hemlock in the 1800s
- the “royal touch” in the Middle Ages, as some people believed that a physical touch by the hand of a queen or king of France or England would cure the infection
- rest, warmth, and good food, which was a treatment approach before the discovery of antibiotics
TB can affect both animals and humans.
Archeologists have found signs of TB in the bones of a bison in Wyoming. They believe the bison lived more than
Every year, about 1 million cattle receive testing for bovine TB (Mycobacterium bovis). The most likely cattle to develop TB are those that come in contact with wild animals that carry TB, such as deer.
It may also be possible for TB to spread from animals to humans.
The following sections provide answers to frequently asked questions about TB.
When was the tuberculosis epidemic?
TB reached epidemic levels in Western Europe in the
In the 1800s, people in Europe and North America called it “Captain of All These Men of Death” because it accounted for about 1 in 4 deaths each year.
How was TB treated in the 1920s?
In the early
Who brought tuberculosis to America?
Popular theory suggests that early Europeans brought TB to the Americas. However, a
TB has existed in the world for thousands and possibly millions of years. There is evidence to suggest that early civilizations experienced the condition, though they called it different names.
It was not until the 1800s that scientists discovered the bacteria causing TB. It would take until the mid-1940s before antibiotics would provide effective, curative treatment for TB.
In the United States, TB is no longer predominant, but it can still be found in large numbers throughout the world.