Revealing account of the experience of tuberculosis from the patient's point of view. A scholar at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons, Rothman (Woman's Proper Place, 1978) examined numerous collections of family papers, diaries, and memoirs searching for ``narratives of illness,'' specifically for accounts by those with tuberculosis, the leading cause of death in the 19th century. First come the writings of young, educated New Englanders in the opening half of that century—a time when the disease, then called consumption, was believed to be hereditary and noncontagious. Its sufferers were considered invalids, a label with both medical and social implications, requiring the ill to seek cures and modifying their social obligations. Male invalids might have to change their careers, giving up the bookish professions, for instance, to go off on lengthy ocean voyages or take up the outdoor life of a farmer; women, however, were expected to seek their cures at home, surrounded by family. Through their narratives, we see how the sufferers lived with life-altering illness and how their families and friends responded. Rothman turns then to the western frontier during the period 1840-90. Here, consumptives became health seekers, full of confidence and optimism, until, with Robert Koch's discovery of the tubercle bacillus in 1882, fear of contagion changed everything. Those diagnosed with tuberculosis were thereafter segregated in sanitoriums, their illness narratives narrowing from life stories to accounts of encounters with the disease, nurses and doctors, and other patients. Rothman's selection of narrative passages, along with her own descriptions, make the transition from invalid to health seeker to patient a poignant one, and her revelations about the nature of illness from the patient's perspective are especially valuable in light of the current tuberculosis comeback and the national debate about health care policy. Rich in detail and human interest.
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