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While the world will likely never rid itself of disease, it’s worth looking over how diseases once affected the populations and, perhaps more importantly, how they were handled. Modern science and technology have evolved the world of disease, making it easier to prevent epidemics and provide cures for some diseases. 

So, what have learned from centuries of disease?

The White Plague: Gone for Good?

At one point in history, tuberculosis (TB) was the deadliest disease in the U.S. In the 1700s though, it had a different name: the white plague, aptly named due to the extremely pale appearance of its victims. The white plague, or TB, is a great example of a massive epidemic that not only swept across populations but time as well. For a long time, it was the immortal killer, at one point during the 19th century killing one out of every seven people living in the United States and Europe.


Today, cases of the white plague are so unheard of that many people don't know its symptoms, or what they even look like. Coincidentally, when TB was most prevalent, those that suffered from it had the same problem recognizing the disease.


Around the 1700s is when physicians and pathologists were really able to begin dissecting and pinpoint the white plague within human bodies. A Genevan physician in 1702, Jean-Jacques Manget observed on a post-mortem patient multiple small phthitic nodules throughout the lungs and other organs. Another, Scottish pathologist, Matthew Baille, nephew of great anatomists John and William Hunter, described the caseous (“cheese-like”) appearance of phthitic abscesses in 1793.


You can imagine why this disease confounded physicians and scientists alike. For centuries, the white plague hid away inside our bodies, silent and invisible at first, but obviously painful near the end. It took the advancement of medicine and practice to begin seeing it for what it really was.


Today, we can test for and detect TB one of two ways: skin and blood tests. Accesa Labs explains, “To prevent mass outbreaks of this once deadly disease from occurring, it is common that individuals be required to undergo a TB test for work or school. These tests can help to detect the disease early, often in its latent stage, and prevent it from spreading to other individuals.” Of course, if left untreated, TB can still kill you. However, in the U.S. in 2016, deaths from TB were at their lowest case count on record. Unfortunately, however, progress is still moving slower than most would like, and it’s likely we won’t see a complete elimination of TB this century. Still, thanks to modern medicine, the white plague is heading towards no longer being “the captain of all these men of death.”

How Far Civilization Has Come

Disease outbreaks have historically been due to lack of proper hygiene and general lack of knowledge. Many of us are familiar with the black plague and where civilization went wrong handling that, but there are other, perhaps less infamous diseases that rocked the world centuries ago.


In the 1700s, dysentery was an epidemic that swept through many countries around the globe, and in fact, between the 1700s and 1800s, it’s estimated that around 90 percent of deaths in Sweden were caused by dysentery. Moreover, cholera and smallpox are some other diseases that are often described as the most devastating epidemic diseases of this particular era.


The U.S.’s history of disease is also startling, as disease outbreak experts explain, “In 1633, smallpox was brought to North America and decimated over 70 percent of the Native American population. In 1793, yellow fever caused at least 5,000 deaths and the evacuation of Philadelphia.” Diseases have a firm place in our history, but today, modern advances are (thankfully) making it easier to control the spread of disease outbreaks. As our technology and modern medicines continue to advance, it’ll be interesting to see what diseases finally die out and what new ones pop up.


Undoubtedly, we should consider ourselves lucky to have better knowledge and modern medicine for lethal diseases that once plagued humanity during the 18th century. Of course, accessibility to health care is still an issue today and is the driving factor behind many current diseases and outbreaks. In a time where we have a much clearer understanding of disease, finding more ways to treat more people can help finally eliminate timeless diseases like the white plague and more.

About Author:

Avery Taylor Phillips is a freelance writer living in the wilds of Idaho. Her interests include 18th-century history, medical iot-technology, architecture, and timekeeping. Comment or Tweet at @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.