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.

Collage representing the history of tuberculosis.Share on Pinterest
Left: 12th February 1944: London factory workers being X-rayed using a mobile radiography unit travelling from borough to borough, during a mass radiography programme set up to detect the early stages of tuberculosis. Right: Dr. Koch’s Treatment for consumption at the Royal Hospital, Berlin. Dr. Pfuhl inoculating a patient with the lymph. Undated engraving. Image credit; Design by MNT; Photography by Leonard McCombe/Getty Images & Bettmann/Getty Images

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), TB may date back about 3 million years with different names, such as:

  • 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 9,000 years.

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
  • infants
  • 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 many years, doctors debated whether TB was hereditary or infectious. Some believed it was a type of cancer.

In the 1800s, people living in New England believed vampires may be the cause of TB spread. This led to the development of rituals to cleanse people recently deceased to prevent more cases.

Learn more about how TB spreads.

TB testing developed over time with different researchers adding to the procedure. The history of skin testing for TB is as follows:

  • 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.

Learn more about TB skin tests.

In 1921, Albert Calmette and Jean-Marie Camille Guerin first developed what is known as the Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine.

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.

Learn more about the BCG vaccine for TB.

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:

  • INH
  • rifampin
  • pyrazinamide
  • ethambutol

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 have included:

  • 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 17,000 years ago.

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 1700s. At its height, it caused about 900 deaths out of 100,000 people per year. It became known as “the robber of youth” and the white plague due to the coloration changes it caused in people.

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 20th century, treatment for TB typically involved seclusion in institutions where people received healthy foods, rested, exercised, and followed careful routines. This was believed to help stop the spread of the condition.

Who brought tuberculosis to America?

Popular theory suggests that early Europeans brought TB to the Americas. However, a 2014 study found evidence to suggest that seals brought TB to America before any Europeans made contact with the Americas.

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.