World Tuberculosis Day and Our Ancestors



Mycobacterium tuberculosis- scanning electron micrograph.
Mycobacterium tuberculosis- scanning electron micrograph. Centers for Disease Control, Public Domain.

Beerbower Family, Broida Family, Payne Family

Consumption. Phthisis. Scrofula. Pott’s Disease. The White Plague.

These are all names that were used for tuberculosis (TB), the deadliest disease for many centuries- even for thousands of years. Tuberculosis was described and found in ancient Egypt, and Hippocrates wrote that it was the most prevalent cause of death in Greece. TB has even been found in Neolithic bone 9,000 years old! Closer in time, for 200 years in Europe it was “The White Plague” and killed hundreds of thousands, and more than 30% of Europeans died of TB in the 1800s. Some think that in the industrialized cities, 100% of the poverty-stricken working class was infected with TB. It is estimated that at least 40% of deaths in this group were caused by tuberculosis.

Sanitation in the 1800s, or the lack thereof, was thought by some to be the cause. Sanatoriums were hoped to be a cure in the mid- and late-1800s, by getting patients out of the polluted, closely-packed, dirty cities. Fresh air, along with the prescribed good nutrition and exercise, did some good- consumptives (persons with TB, also called “TBs” or “Lungers”) sometimes actually did improve, and some claimed, were cured. In the United States, moving west to the Rockies or California helped many, including some of our ancestors. Unfortunately, a ‘better’ climate did not help all, including some of our ancestors as well.

Tuberculosis (TB) is an airborne bacterial disease, but that fact was not common knowledge until Robert Koch delivered a paper on his discovery of the bacterium on 24 March 1882- hence, ‘World Tuberculosis Day’ today. The use of x-rays in the early 1900s helped with diagnosis of the disease, but until the discovery in the 1940s of antibiotics that could treat TB, there was no hope of a true cure, but only possible remission, which did sometimes occur.

The most common symptom of TB is a cough, often with bloody sputum; night sweats, a general malaise, fever, and exhaustion may also occur. It is a slow disease, eating away from the inside, and sometimes the outside too, even affecting parts of the body other than the lungs.

A century or two ago, some felt that consumptives were more sensitive, artistic, etc.-  Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anton Checkov, Thoreau, the Bronte sisters, Chopin, Stephen Crane, Robert Heinlein, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, George Orwell, Sarah Bernhardt, Edvard Munch, and many more died of TB. It became fashionable for women to paint their faces almost white to get that pale, delicate complexion seen in consumptives after wasting away for many years.

Tuberculosis is spread when persons carrying the bacterium cough, sneeze, speak, or sing; the bacterium can stay in the air for many hours and infect someone else when that air is breathed in. A carrier may have the bacterium for many years and not know it, but something, such as immune suppression or pregnancy, can trigger the disease into an active state. For some, it may take 15 years or more to waste away with the disease.

TB Prevention Poster
“TB poster” by Rensselaer County Tuberculosis Association. – U.S. National Library of Medicine Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Spittoons have a place in this discussion- men spit tobacco everywhere back in the day, and that actually spread TB. Using spittoons helped to corral the infection into those brass vessels instead of all over where it could travel via shoes, long dresses, etc. Wonder if the people who cleaned spittoons had a higher rate of the disease?

Pasteurization of milk also helped decrease the disease in developed countries, as the bovine (cow) form of tuberculosis can be spread to humans. This is a real problem today in India and Africa.

TB is not just a disease of the third world these days- with antibiotic resistance increasing and the number of persons immigrating to western countries carrying Mycobacterium tuberculosis, plus illnesses like HIV and drugs that suppress the immune system (such as some of the new anti-inflamatories), TB is on the rise, even in the US.

Our ancestors would be disappointed to see this trend, as TB would have been something terrible they coped with throughout their lifetime, or with family or friends. They most probably would have thought that it would be curable and then eradicated by the year 2015.

We have had at least 3 ancestors appear unexpectedly out west- two were very puzzling, as the reason for their move was not evident, until one sees the cause of death on the death certificate: tuberculosis. They had gone west in pursuit of golden health, not the gold in the ground.

Robert Warson Beerbower, son of Edgar Peter Beerbower and Anna Missouri Springsteen, was enumerated in the 01 Jun 1900 US Federal Census in Indianapolis, Marion, Indiana, with his wife of just two years, Josephine Reiffel Beerbower. He was working as a railroad clerk, and they were living with his wife’s parents. The couple was expecting their first child. Robert’s job was probably not very strenuous as a clerk, however he was sick. Robert traveled to Denver, Colorado, likely alone, and likely leaving his pregnant wife in Indianapolis. They would have known he had TB, but there were no antibiotics to cure it at that time. He died of tuberculosis on 12 Sep 1900 in Denver, and his body was returned to Indianapolis, Indiana for burial. Robert was only 26 years old. “Rob’s little baby,” Roberta Pearl Beerbower, was born just a month later and named after her father.

Sarah Gitel Frank Broida was born in Lithuania and immigrated to the United States about 1881. She was the mother of nine children, with seven surviving childhood. The family were poor immigrants, living in industrial, polluted Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, working as ‘rag pickers’ initially. Their son Harold Broida was born 25 Dec 1897, and the 1899 City Directory places the family living at 1102 Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh. By 07 June 1900, Gitel, her husband John (or Zelig) Broida, oldest son Joseph, and youngest son Harold were living in Denver, Colorado; the other sons were staying with scattered family back east. This was very puzzling- the Broidas were city folk, and it was hard to imagine them in the still somewhat wild west of 1900. Family oral history, however, stated that Gitel had died of tuberculosis, so their move to the sanitariums there or just the more favorable climate and cleaner air made sense, especially since antibiotics to cure TB would not be available for another 40 years. Perhaps one of Gitel’s many pregnancies had triggered the infection possibly picked up years before, maybe from contaminated rags from their early days in the US, or the disease could have been newly acquired. Gitel died in Denver on 14 April 1901 at the age of 41. Her mortuary record verifies that she died of tuberculosis. (Unfortunately the state of Colorado won’t share her  114 year old death certificate- but they took the money paid for it. Apparently a great-grandchild is not closely related enough to view it, despite the certificate previously being online.)

Edward B. Payne had worked in the tenements of Chicago around 1872, and in the mill towns of Massachusetts and New Hampshire with the poor during the 1880s. He had been called to a position in Berkeley, California, between those years, but had returned to visit family and decided to stay in New England. Edward apparently acquired tuberculosis sometime in the 1880s, if not before; it may possibly have worsened by 1890 or so. In 1892 the family chose to go back to California, in hope that it would improve his health, plus provide him more of what he wished for in his professional and spiritual life. (He was a minister.) The climate must have helped, as Edward lived another 31 years, to age 76, without the cure of antibiotics. He did spend a lot of time outdoors as was recommended for those with tuberculosis, and became a convert to some of the ‘newest’ healthy foods, like whole grain breads, so those treatments may have helped him survive the disease.


Other family members, like the Lees and Aikens, traveled frequently to Colorado. We do know that for the Lees it was due to respiratory problems- plus they loved the mountains- but know of no one that definitely had tuberculosis.



Notes, Sources, and References: 

1) Tuberculosis References :

2) Robert Warson Beerbower- see other posts:

(Robert’s death and “Rob’s little baby” entry for Roberta’s birth.)


3) Sarah Gitel Frank Broida- see the following posts:


4) There are no posts yet about this time period in Edward B. Payne’s life- those are in the works.



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