Consumption: The Romantic Killer
By Luke Evans
Tuberculosis, or consumption, was one of the most prolific diseases from the 17th to 19th century. It was called “consumption” because it seemed to literally consume the victims from the inside out; they would rapidly lose weight and begin coughing up blood. Other symptoms included night sweats, severe coughing, fatigue, chills, fever, and severe chest pains. It was also particularly virulent because no means existed to cure it.
Although tuberculosis started in the city, it began to seep into the surrounding towns. With the rise of industrialization causing air pollution and migration to the city causing overcrowding, conditions worsened to the point where tuberculosis became a common plight. By the start of the 19th century, roughly one in every four deaths in London were due to tuberculosis.
A Romantic Death
In the 19th century in particular, consumption came to be viewed as a romantic disease. The slow progression of the disease allowed the victim time to get their affairs sorted, so it was deemed a “good death.” Medical historian Helen Bynum states that tuberculosis seemed to “lend its victims an air of noble suffering and heightened sexual allure.” She also relates a story in which Lord Byron, a prominent 19th century romantic poet, said during a visit from a friend, “I look pale. I should like to die of a consumption.” When his friend asked him why, Byron said, “Because the ladies would all say: ‘Look at that poor Byron, how interesting he looks in dying!’” The “consumptive look” was so popular that many ladies powdered themselves white to achieve the pale look seen on consumption patients.
Many artists gave their heroines consumption as a means of giving them a more romantic and dramatic death. Prominent Italian composers Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini both composed lavish operatic death scenes for their consumptive heroines in La Traviata and La Boheme, respectively. French novelists such as Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo participated in the same practice in their own works; Dumas in La Dame aux Camélias, and Hugo in his seminal Les Misérables.