Consumption, today more commonly called ‘tuberculosis’, is a bacterial infection which typically affects the lungs of a sufferer, causing a persistent wet cough, difficulty breathing, fever, fatigue and sweating. It also causes significant weight loss, which is the source of its historical name, consumption. Eventually, the lungs of the sufferer become so damaged that respiratory failure occurs.
The bacteria that cause tuberculosis, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, can be spread through coughing, sneezing and spitting. It is also possible to have a latent tuberculosis infection, carrying the bacteria but not suffer from active tuberculosis (and thus not be able to transmit the infection to others).
Tuberculosis infection can also affect organs of the body other than the lungs. Examples of this in the register include ‘consumption of bowels’ and ‘consumption of the brain’. ‘Scrofula’, a disease which also appears as a cause of death in the burial registers, is also known ‘Mycobacterial cervical lymphadenitis’. Scrofula is an infection of the lymph nodes. In adults, it is usually caused by the tuberculosis bacterium, with symptoms including swelling of the lymph nodes, fever, weight loss and open wounds on the skin of the neck.
Consumption was a leading cause of death and disability in previously healthy adults in Britain in the 1800s. A huge number of people suffered with the disease throughout the nineteenth century. The Leeds General Cemetery burial registers record over 5,500 deaths caused by consumption and a further 500 caused by ‘TB’, ‘tuberculosis’ or ‘phthisis’.
Overcrowding, lack of ventilation and damp all made consumption more likely to spread, and thus it was particularly likely to affect people living in the smaller houses and poorer conditions associated with lower incomes.
However, consumption was extremely widespread and affected people from all backgrounds. The image of consumption came to have a profound effect on culture as a whole. In some circles, it developed a reputation for being the ‘artist’s disease’. This is reflected in the representations of consumption in popular culture, such as the opera La Boheme. Eventually however, consumption’s reputation as a bohemian disease faded as it became more closely associated with the unsanitary housing conditions of the working poor.
Tuberculosis was particularly prevalent in Leeds: in 1890, 11% of all deaths in the city were caused by tuberculosis. As a result, the local government were keen to instigate methods of controlling the spread of the disease.
One of these methods involved tight regulation and monitoring of dairy products. Cows can carry another type of bacteria, Mycobacterium bovis. It is possible for this bacteria to infect humans, so the local government in Leeds employed a number of inspectors to keep records on dairy farmers and their cattle in West Yorkshire. Other methods of containing tuberculosis included designating funds and hospital beds for sufferers and public health campaigns about the importance of good hygiene. By 1920, the percentage of deaths caused by tuberculosis in Leeds had decreased to 1.56%.
Consumption is one of the top ten most common causes of death recorded in the Leeds General Cemetery burial registers. To find out more, visit the Leeds General Cemetery Burial Registers Index. Select ‘View key statistics’ to generate charts displaying the breakdown of who this disease affected.
Written by Imogen Gerard and Kelsie Root, as part of their internship with the AHRC project, 'Living with Dying: Everyday Cultures of Dying within Family Life in Britain, 1900-50s', summer 2017.