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The White Plague in the City of Angels

Caroline Luce, Author

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Scientific Discovery of tubercle bacilli - 1882

Within the scientific community, two primary explanations of the cause of tuberculosis emerged by the late 19th century. Those in the first camp insisted that the condition was in some way genetically inherited, and pointed to its prevalence in families as evidence that some hereditary disposition or constitutional defect made people prone to contracting it. Another set of theorists argued that the condition was caused by some combination of environmental factors including unfavorable climate, sedentary indoor lifestyle, defective ventilation, or deficiency of light. 

All that changed in 1882 when Dr. Robert Koch announced the discovery of tubercle bacilli, demonstrating that the disease was caused by an infection of the bacteria. Like every scientific discovery, Koch’s findings built on decades of research by others: an English doctor named Benjamin Martin first proposed in 1722 the idea that “consumption” was caused by a “germ,” and in 1869, French scientist Jean-Antoine Villemin demonstrated that the disease could be transferred from human cadavers to rabbits. But the idea had not caught on outside of small scientific circles, and most doctors continued to believe that “consumption” was not communicable. Using an innovative staining technique, Koch was able to positively identify the presence of the bacteria in tissue samples and prove that it could be transferred from one organism to another. He surmised that the bacilli reached the air sacs of lungs (bronchi) after being inhaled from dust or sputum, or entered the body through the intestines via contaminated food.  

Koch's discovery accelerated the epidemiology around tuberculosis and by the turn of the 20th century, scientists were able to better diagnose the infection and understand why and how the disease “consumed” the body. Perhaps most significantly, his experiment confirmed that the disease was not in fact genetic or hereditary, but rather communicable, a contagion the spread of which could be prevented, both in individual bodies and throughout society. Although his attempts to develop a vaccination for the disease largely failed, and no cure was found for tuberculosis until the advent of antibiotics, Koch was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery in 1905. Click here to read more about Dr. Koch.
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