(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Thomas Dormandy is an established author in the field of medical history. His writing style is a combination of scholarly research, human interest anecdotes, and occasional wry comments about the medical profession. “White death” was a term given to tuberculosis because patients commonly looked pale and anemic as they lay in bed. Frequently they suffered for several years with severe coughing, loss of weight, low energy, and spitting up of blood from the lungs. By contrast, “Black Death” referred to the plague that devastated Europe in the 1300’s, one of its symptoms being blood blisters that turned black under the skin.

Scattered throughout Dormandy’s book are the stories of well-known people who suffered and died from tuberculosis. The author provides biographical information about these people and shows how the disease affected their personal lives and their creative work. Many of these individuals lived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when tuberculosis was very prevalent and had no known cure. It may surprise the reader to recognize quite a few of the famous people on the following list, each of whom died of the disease in midcareer:

John Keats, English poet, died in 1821, age twenty-five

Carl Maria von Weber, German composer, died in 1826, age thirty-nine

Frédéric Chopin, Polish pianist and composer, died in 1849, age thirty-nine

Emily Brontë, English writer, died in 1848, age thirty

Charlotte Brontë, English writer, died in 1855, age thirty-nine

Henry David Thoreau, American writer, died in 1862, age forty-four

Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish author, died in 1894, age forty-four

Anton Chekhov, Russian dramatist, died in 1904, age forty-four

Amedeo Modigliani, Italian/French painter, died in 1920, age thirty-six

Katherine Mansfield, English writer, died in 1923, age thirty-four

David H. Lawrence, English novelist, died in 1930, age forty-four

Franz Kafka, Austrian writer, died in 1924, age forty

George Orwell, English writer, died in 1950, age forty-six

Dormandy gives numerous examples of writers, artists, and musicians who incorporated the emotional trauma of extended suffering into their work. The White Death has as its cover illustration a famous painting by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, a haunting deathbed picture of his sister Sophie, who died of tuberculosis at age sixteen, with her despondent mother sitting by her side. Dormandy gives poignant quotations from the correspondence of Katherine Mansfield with her literary friends, in which she recorded the peaks and valleys of her six-year illness. Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème (1896) and the Giuseppe Verdi opera La Traviata(1853) both have heroines who tragically die of tuberculosis in the last scene. A famous novel by the German writer Thomas Mann, Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), takes place at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps where the life of patients is dominated by their illness. Dormandy quotes from Anton Chekhov’s lengthy correspondence with an actress friend during his extended sickness. Betty MacDonald, who became famous for her humorous story about life on a chicken farm in The Egg and I (1945), later told about her depressing confinement in a tubercular sanatorium in The Plague and I (1948).

As a general principle in the medical profession, if an illness can be diagnosed and treated early, the likelihood of recovery is increased. When a tubercular patient is already spitting up blood, it is usually too late for treatment. Dormandy describes the rather limited techniques for early diagnosis that were available before the discovery of X rays. The simple procedure of tapping the chest can help an experienced physician to identify tubercular cavities or abscesses in the lungs. This technique was first used in the eighteenth century by a Viennese doctor who had seen his father tapping the outsides of wine casks to determine the degree of fermentation. The stethoscope as a listening instrument was not invented until 1818. A skin test for tuberculosis was developed by Clemens von Pirquet in 1907. If the skin became red, von Pirquet called it an allergic reaction, indicating either active tuberculosis or an earlier episode of the disease that had been healed by the immune system. A follow-up chest X ray would then be given to show whether the lungs were damaged.


(The entire section is 1827 words.)