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Home > Exhibitions > Vaccination: finding the 'perfect disease' > Tuberculosis


Tuberculosis (TB) is a respiratory infection, historically referred to as ‘consumption’. Caused by Myobacterium tuberculosis, TB is transferred from person to person through the inhalation of tiny droplets containing the bacterium, resulting in symptoms of fatigue, fevers, and the coughing up of blood. Pioneering microbiologist Robert Koch identified the TB bacteria in the early 1880s, but it wasn't until the 20th century that a vaccine against TB was developed. 

The diagnosis and treatment of TB developed after Koch's discovery in the 1880s. The Mantoux test, or the tuberculin sensitivity test, was developed during the 20th century following Koch's pioneering research. Tuberculin, Koch discovered, is a derivative of the TB bacterium and became a key component of diagnosis in patients. To determine if a patient has TB, a small dosage of tuberculin is injected into the skin using a tuberculin syringe. The reaction of the skin at the site of injection is then used to determine whether a patient has latent TB. 

Before the discovery of antibiotics by Sir Alexander Fleming, the treatment of TB was limited to plenty of rest, fresh air, and food. However, in some cases, more invasive surgical methods were used to induce rest. During the 19th century it was discovered that TB patients with a pneumothorax fared better than those without, the theory being that the pressure surrounding the lung was arresting the development of TB in the lungs. The method of inducing a pneumothorax, an "artificial pneumothorax", was developed by Carlo Forlanini in 1884 and involved the insertion of a hypodermic needle into the pleural membrane surrounding the lungs to pump in a solution of nitrogen gas. This would increase the intrapleural pressure, reducing the size of the lung itself. This treatment became known as "collapse therapy". 

Glasgow had some of the highest TB death rates in the UK, which prompted a mass X-ray campaign in the 1950s. Mobile radiography units travelled around the city with the aim of scanning as many people as possible in order to determine potential carriers of TB. An X-ray station was set up in George Square, as seen in the picture above. This campaign led to a reduction in TB cases in the city. 

Sanatoriums specifically for the treatment of TB were established all over the UK during the 20th century, often in countryside settings not far from busy cities. These sanatoriums served as places of rest for patients of TB, constructed in such a way that the wards received plenty of sunlight and fresh air. One such place was Mearnskirk Hospital, which you can learn about in this digital exhibition