Sheila Rothman

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise


Subtitled "Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History," the book chronicles the medical and societal treatment of tuberculosis in the United States from the perspective of individuals who suffered from the disease. The author includes illness narratives derived from letters and diaries of the afflicted; her analysis spans the period in American history from the nineteenth through the first half of the twentieth century.

The book is divided into four sections. Part I, "The Invalid Experience: New England Men, 1810-60" and Part II, "The Female Invalid: The Narrative of Deborah Vinal Fiske, 1806-44" reveal an interesting contrast in the medical/societal treatment of tubercular men and women, and the resulting differences in their lives as "consumptives." Whereas men were expected to seek a cure by embarking on sea voyages and other travel, women remained at home and sought to control the disease by adjustments in domestic life. For men this meant major disruption and even change of career along with a sometimes exhilarating change of scene; for women it meant relentless anxiety and elaborate coping strategies.

Part III, "Health Seekers in the West, 1840-90" describes the role of cure-seekers in the westward migration and demonstrates how the culture of the time, an optimistic faith in nature and in the economic promise of the newly settled western territories, was reflected in the treatment regimen for tuberculosis. Interestingly, much of the promotional effort to bring "consumptives" west was initiated by physicians who were themselves tubercular.

The final section, "Becoming a Patient, 1882-1940," moves into the modern era with the discovery of the tubercle bacillus, public health measures, and the illness narratives of people who were confined in sanatoriums. Rothman points out that this period marked a transition away from the patient’s ability to understand and determine his/her treatment to one more like the current one in which the medical establishment is the authoritarian "expert."

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