THE WAR ON TUBERCULOSIS (April 28/00)

The War on Tuberculosis,” my daughter said, reading aloud the title of the old book she spied on a dining room table. “You must be bored if you’re reading that.”

“It’s interesting,” was all I could manage.

I could have answered that thanks to the book, I learned the name of a rare malady I was afflicted with when I was a boy. When I was growing up near the old Nova Scotia Sanatorium I suffered from a severe case of phthisiophobia.

In fact, most of the kids in my neighbourhood had this phobia, a morbid fear of phthisis, which is another name for tuberculosis. There were times when we were afraid to walk downwind of the “San,” believing we could pick up TB germs that were blowing in the air. Any contact with patients at the San was rigorously avoided and the buildings were shunned. Contact of any sort with the San meant we would catch TB, which we believed was incurable and deadly.

Our childhood fear of the San was fed by adults, in most cases our parents, who were ignorant of the facts regard tuberculosis. My old phobia was recalled when I read the 80-year-old handbook my daughter called boring. The War on Tuberculosis was written in 1921 by Dr. A. F. Miller and Jane W. Mortimer. Dr. Miller was the pioneer director of the San from 1910 to 1947.

When Dr. Miller took over as medical director, the San had been in operation for less than a decade. Little was known about tuberculosis at the time but there were many myths about the disease which Dr. Miller wished to dispel. Hence the writing of this book, which while apparently prepared as a guide for TB patients and close relatives, also dealt with facts and fallacies about tuberculosis.

When Dr. Miller co-authored The War on Tuberculosis, TB was killing 1,500 Nova Scotians a year. We were decades away from the discovery of Streptomycin, the drug that would eradicate tuberculosis. All that was really known about tuberculosis at the time was that the only “possible cure” was rest, sunlight, good food and fresh air. The sanatorium set up by the provincial government north of Kentville in 1904 was laid out to apply this cure in good measure but when Dr. Miller arrived the death rate at the facility was 50 percent.

In writing a historical review of the San in the period 1904 to 1975, Dr. J. J. Quinlan said that in his struggle to combat tuberculosis, Dr. Miller faced “apathy and ignorance, not only from the public but from his own medical associates.” Tuberculosis was largely believed to be incurable but Dr. Miller’s earlier experiences with the disease showed it could be beaten. Miller himself had developed the disease shortly after graduating from Dalhousie University in 1904.

Miller’s firm conviction that TB could be conquered shines through in every page of The War on Tuberculosis. In many ways Miller is years ahead of his time in that he praises the value of fruits and vegetables over meat; Miller almost but not quite recommends a vegetarian diet, noting that meat really isn’t a necessary diet item.

Sex was a delicate, taboo subject in 1921 and one certainly wouldn’t find many discussions on it in print during this period. But Dr. Miller and his co-author tackle this subject with little mincing of words. One finds their thinking on tobacco well ahead of its time as well. The smoking and chewing of tobacco is harshly condemned and its ill effects on health clearly spelled out.

Far from being boring, I found The War on Tuberculosis enlightening, educational and in some ways prophetic regarding health and nutrition.

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