Words are indicative of their era. The words used to describe simple things often change over time. The disease we know as tuberculosis was once called consumption. Before it was consumption it was the white plague, and long before that it was schachepheth, tabes, and phthisis.
New Normal. Uncertain. Trying times. Unprecedented. These words are indicative of our own era—they were used to convey the collective anxiety associated with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. They became shorthand to express something that could not be articulated.
But in that shorthand lies an error. The historically commonplace role of disease in everyday life is easily forgotten in places like Columbus, Ohio. For The Ohio State University, in particular—this is not the first time that disease has disrupted the rhythm of academic life. Tuberculosis plagued this university from its founding, and for nearly a century afterward.
While the current times are different, difficult, and uncertain—they are not unprecedented. It would be a disservice to the students and staff who came before us to allow this misnomer to go uncorrected. Through a culmination of sources from the University Archives and The Lantern, there is a story to be told of disease on campus—one that feels at times disheartening and mournful, sometimes revolutionary, and sometimes amusingly antiquated.
Image: University Archives, The Lantern Staff, 1899
Today’s relative freedom from disease is only possible as a result of the scientific advancements made in the beginning era of our university. We are privileged in our understanding of pathogenesis.
When the university was founded, humanity had known of bacteria for nearly two centuries. The Lantern, Ohio State’s independent student newspaper, ran its first publication in 1881. It wasn’t until 1882 that Robert Koch, microbiologist and one of the founding fathers of germ theory, discovered the bacilli culprit of the white plague: Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
In an 1897 article summarizing a lecture on the budding science of bacteriology, The Lantern quoted Professor Bleile saying that Koch’s discovery of the TB bacteria was “The most remarkable progress in this science...” It was the first disease to be definitively linked to the microbe that caused it.[i]
Remarkable progress was necessary, considering that up until that point, the majority of mentions of tuberculosis in The Lantern were to list the cause of death of a student. From this point on, tuberculosis was an increasing priority for the university. The disease of many names, which had impacted humanity for millennia, was finally more than a name; it was a bacterium.
Image: University Archives, Bacteriology Lab, 1900
The fight against tuberculosis was multifaceted. It was more than a human disease. Apart from humans—dogs, cats, swine—and most significant to an agricultural university—cattle can contract TB. Soon after Professor Bleile’s lecture on bacteriology, Dr. D. S. White of the Veterinary Department announced that he would begin issuing tuberculin tests on the university’s herd of cattle.[ii] Two years later, Dr. White took a group of students on a field trip from the Columbus campus to Wooster to examine cows with tuberculosis and to watch detailed autopsies of these animals.[iii]
Image: University Archives, Livestock Judging Class, 1908-1909
Treatment of tuberculosis in the 19th century was limited, and the disease was a leading cause of death. While the bacterium can infect many organs, pulmonary TB is the most typical presentation. Young people would grow thin and fatigued, with the hallmark persistent cough of consumption, and they would be sent home from their studies. Some would go to a sanatorium, others would travel out west in hopes of the air being easier to breathe, but most would return home with nothing to do but rest until they either recovered or succumbed to the disease.
Whichever direction they went, many students left Ohio State due to tuberculosis, and they never came back. In the first decade of the 20th century, there were twelve deaths due to tuberculosis reported in The Lantern.
The latter half of this decade saw a rapid succession of progress in the work to end TB:
In 1905, the Faculty Women’s Club held a meeting focused on “The Warfare on Tuberculosis,” which was followed by the death of beloved Professor Albert Henry Heller.[iv] The convocation of 1907 featured a speech on tuberculosis,[v] leading to the 1908 establishment of a university-wide campaign to end the disease. For decades to follow, students would sell Red-Cross Christmas Stamps to raise money for the cause—as advertised in The Lantern.
A milestone came in 1910, when it was announced that none of the cows in the 79-head herd of cattle tested positive for tuberculosis. This was achieved by isolating infected cows.[vi]
The search for a viable human tuberculosis treatment was by no means a straight path. Over the years, The Lantern reported many different proposed treatments and attempted vaccines, however, nothing would be truly effective until the development of antibiotics.
One such treatment was the “Friedmann Cure,” which was refuted by Dr. E. C. Schroder in 1913. Following a lecture that was intended to discuss the transmission of TB to humans from cattle, an audience member asked what Schroder thought about the prospective cure. The response? “Until more is known...forget it.” Schroder probably made a good call—Friedmann’s “cure” was an attempt to make a vaccine by extracting fluid from infected turtles.[vii]
There wouldn’t be an effective vaccine for tuberculosis until the late twenties. The Bilie Calmette Guerin Vaccine was capable of decreasing mortality; however, it had its problems—exemplified by the Lubeck disaster. Studies of BCG stretched throughout the 20th century, however variations of the vaccine failed to provide substantial protection from pulmonary tuberculosis.
The general understanding of infectious disease was still in a relative state of infancy in 1915, when Professor Francis Landacre gave a lecture on Mendel’s law of heredity, discussing the transmission of infectious diseases being separate from hereditary diseases.[viii]
In 1924, university President William Oxley Thompson spoke at the Ohio Public Health Association’s annual meeting to commemorate the state of Ohio’s 23rd year fighting tuberculosis.[ix] A decade later, Dr. Upham from the college of medicine spoke to The Lantern to discuss the “Tuberculosis Serum” that had been given to two convicts in Colorado. The state was a popular destination for tuberculosis patients, who traveled west in hopes that the climate would ease their illness. In 1934, two convicts were given the chance to be free if they consented to receive a trial vaccine. Dr. Upham commented that the results from two patients did not amount to significant data to indicate success of the vaccine, but he expressed optimism that scientific advances would one day lead to herd immunity.[x]
The late thirties began a decade of diligence in eradicating tuberculosis at Ohio State. In 1937, The Lantern quoted the namesake of our current student health services, Dr. John W. Wilce:
“Tuberculosis is the leading cause of death among the young people of college age at this time.”[xi]
From this declaration sprung an effort that would be “the first mass x-ray projects of supposedly well people ever promoted in Ohio.”[xii]
The program was built gradually over the late thirties and early forties. In 1940, the freshman class—all 2,280 of them—were given a tuberculin patch test to identify students with a tuberculosis infection. Students who tested positive would then have their chest x-rayed to look for scarring of the lung tissue. Some of the positive tests were active cases, but many positives were either a latent infection, or remnants of a childhood infection.[xiii]
The following year, all freshmen had chest x-rays as well as the patch test. According to Dr. Wilce, between 11-22% of the men had had TB at one point in their lives, while that number was between 7-9% of the women tested.[xiv]
While Ohio State was waging war on TB, the United States was joining the Second World War. By 1944, The Lantern was primarily occupied by stories of the ongoing war, yet, on February 16th of that year, the student newspaper ran an article by the department of bacteriology’s Dr. Jorgen M. Birkeland. This piece was entitled, “Plague Has Been Deadly Since Civilization Began,” calling to the long history of tuberculosis. Birkeland describes the disease over millennia—at the time, evidence showed presence of TB in humans 7,000 years ago, while today’s estimates stretch back twice as far.[xv]
Jorgen went on to discuss the treatments of the day, specifically diasone—which was one of the many chemotherapeutic attempts to treat tuberculosis. He also expressed concern that TB would increasingly spread at the war’s end—as it had at the end of the First World War. His article grimly concludes that “Tuberculosis is the price man pays for an imperfect civilization.”
The war ended, and soon came the year 1946. This new academic year would include an additional step to the process of university orientation: chest x-rays. Students were considered to have an incomplete registration until they stopped by the health department station to have their tuberculosis screening x-ray.[xvi]
Image: University Archives, Tuberculosis X-Ray Line, 1949
Six years after the end of WWII, the effects of the war were still being felt at the university. The housing currently known as the soon-to-be-demolished Buckeye Village was originally “GI Village” and was home to student veterans and their families. In 1951, the residents of Buckeye Village were all tested for TB. Those who were old enough had chest x-rays, while children were given patch tests.[xvii]
In 1948, the construction was announced of a new hospital that would be dedicated to the treatment of tuberculosis. This hospital would be constructed for the price tag of $2,000,000 ($22.3 million in today’s money). The Tuberculosis Hospital opened in 1951 and was named Means Hall.[xviii]
Image: Medical Heritage Center, Means Hall—Ohio Tuberculosis Hospital
Antibiotics were first used to treat tuberculosis in 1949, and a lengthy course of antibiotics remains the standard treatment for TB. Antibiotic resistance has always been a challenge in treating tuberculosis, however, antibiotics are the reason that tuberculosis is no longer a major threat in the United States.[xix]
As the years went on, Means Hall treated a variety of chest diseases and respiratory issues. Means Hall later housed several departments and finally served as faculty office space before its 2009 demolition to make room for new medical center buildings. Only ten years after the demolition of tuberculosis’s last mark on campus, the world was turned upside down by a different respiratory disease: COVID-19.
While the structure of Means Hall was outdated and would not have been suited to address the COVID-19 pandemic—it is a poignant symbol, that we are hardly removed from the diseased world of our predecessors.
Time has shown that tuberculosis is not necessarily the price man pays for an imperfect civilization. It would seem, however, that disease is the unfortunate price we pay for the imbalanced symbiota between the micro and macro. Disease is as precedented as life itself. Rather, the response of 21st century humanity is unprecedented. Our technology and our science allowed us to adapt to a disease outbreak in ways that were unimaginable to those who came before—yet we are connected to them through a legacy of resilience in the face of disease.
Thank you to The Ohio State University Libraries, University Archives, and the decades of students who contributed to The Lantern.
Written by Marie Klever, Edited by Katie McAfee
[i] The Lantern. 17 February 1897.
[ii] The Lantern. 31 March 1897.
[iii] The Lantern. 12 April 1899.
[iv] The Lantern. 6 December 1905.
[v] The Lantern. 1 May 1907.
[vi] The Lantern. 9 February 1910.
[vii] The Lantern. 21 May 1913.
[viii] The Lantern. 26 February 1915.
[ix] The Lantern. 20 May 1924.
[x] The Lantern. 17 December 1934.
[xi] The Lantern. 29 November 1937.
[xii] The Lantern. 25 October 1944.
[xiii] The Lantern. 15 October 1940.
[xiv] The Lantern. 5 May 1942
[xv] The Lantern. 16 February 1944.
[xvi] The Lantern. 2 October 1946.
[xvii] The Lantern. 28 March 1951.
[xviii] Hudson, N. Paul. The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Volume II 1934-1958. The Ohio State University. Columbus, Ohio. 1961.
[xix] M.D. Iseman. Tuberculosis therapy: past, present and future. European Respiratory Journal. Jul 2002, 20 (36 suppl) 87S-94s; DOI: 10.1183/09031936.02.00309102