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Author Diana Walstad delves into the impact of TB on her ancestors in Family History (1860-1950) of a Doctor’s Daughter. She explains their behavior in terms of societal attitudes that prevailed at the time. For example, before people knew that TB was contagious and not an inherited frailty, her great-grandmother sometimes put the kids in bed with their feverish, tubercular father to keep them warm on cold nights. Prior to 1930, many people believed that TB generated immunity, perhaps explaining why the author’s grandfather saw no risk in marrying a woman from a tubercular family. He may have thought that she–now a robust adult–had acquired immunity. She hadn’t. After she died of TB, he repeated the same mistake with his second wife.
The book fleshes out the personal tragedies with history. It begins with Robert Koch’s discovery (1882) of Mycobacterium tuberculosis and ends with Gerhard Domagk, a bacteriologist who risked his life during World War II to bring forth the drug isoniazid, now a cornerstone of TB chemotherapy. The book documents the struggle and ultimate victory of America’s health care community in rooting out TB from the general population. It was no small achievement.