microbiology bacteria pathogens art

Tuberculosis - A Romantic Disease?

A survey of an unlikely pair - Tuberculosis and art

Studying the bacterial species Mycobacterium smegmatis, which is what I spend my days doing, hardly feels like an art form. This nonpathogenic (harmless) species is closely related to Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes the deadly disease tuberculosis (TB). Because M. smegmatis is both safer and easier to work with than the actual pathogen, M. tuberculosis, my lab is one of many that study M. smegmatis in the hopes of getting humanity closer to eradicating TB. We look at how this family of organisms grows and divides, to generate information that can possibly be used to develop more effective treatment methods. Since we are on a mission to end this disease, when I think about TB, I think about an extremely painful pulmonary infection, that is difficult to treat, and has killed 1.4 million people in 2015 alone [1]. However, TB has been on the minds of not only scientists, but numerous artists in history, providing a perspective that is very different from my day to day lab work.

TB is a major public health concern in African and East Asian countries, but it is not currently much of a threat in the west. However, TB was still a significant health concern in Europe and the US as late as the 20th century, before a vaccine and antibiotics were introduced. Since this disease can be fatal, the combination of art and TB may seem unlikely at first. But considering it has been destroying lives for as long as human history has been recorded (even found in Egyptian Mummies!) [2], why wouldn’t it play a major role in books, films, paintings, and other creative media?

Over the years, many famous artists have either lost loved ones or died of TB, also known as “consumption”. The Dutch painter Rembrandt lost his wife and muse to the disease, as did the French impressionist Claude Monet, who even painted her on her deathbed. The Polish composer Chopin is thought to have died of TB, and the English poet John Keats lost several family members to TB, which he referred to as his “family disease”. Fictional works have long referenced this disease as well: You might recall that in the 2001 film Moulin Rouge, Nicole Kidman’s character dies of TB. Operas such as La traviata (on which Moulin Rouge is based) and novels such as Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son also describe death by consumption.

Fig 1. “Camille on Her Deathbed” (Claude Monet, 1879) It has been said that Monet was impressed by the colors brought on by his wife’s tuberculosis. Source: Wikimedia

Despite the tragic loss associated with TB, for some reason, it was surprisingly referred to as “the romantic disease”. In the short story “Metzengerstein: A Tale in Imitation of the German”, the American poet Edgar Allan Poe, who would later lose his wife to TB, wrote about a woman dying of the disease: “It is a path I have prayed to follow. I would wish all I love to perish of that gentle disease.” Maybe it was the combination of a slow death and the appearance of TB patients that contributed to the notion that this was a positive way to go: The patient’s skin would become pale, a look that was considered attractive in those days. This could also explain why tuberculosis was sometimes called “the white plague”. This change in the patient’s complexion is so striking, that as the story goes, after painting his dying wife (Fig 1.), Claude Monet wrote: “finding myself at the deathbed of a loved one, I was surprised by the colors that death brought to her immobile face.”

Fig 2.“The sick child” (Edvard Munch, 1885-1886) Munch painted his older sister Johanne Sophie as she was dying of tuberculosis. Source: Wikimedia

Suffering is commonly known to inspire artists, but the relationship between art and tuberculosis is stranger than the usual pairing of pain and creativity. So much so that it has intrigued medical and art historians, resulting in entire books dedicated to understanding how such a destructive disease has been so often portrayed as “romantic”, “gentle” and generally pleasant [3]. There is definitely nothing romantic about my lab experiments, but every now and then when I look at these little bugs under the microscope, I wonder if it could perhaps be considered art as well. Looking at them, you would hardly believe that such tiny organisms could cause so much trouble and have such an immense impact on society.


[1] World Health Organization. “Global tuberculosis report 2016.” (2016).

[2] Zink, Albert R., Christophe Sola, Udo Reischl, Waltraud Grabner, Nalin Rastogi, Hans Wolf, and Andreas G. Nerlich. “Characterization of Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex DNAs from Egyptian mummies by spoligotyping.” Journal of clinical microbiology 41, no. 1 (2003): 359-367.

[3] Lawlor, Clark. Consumption and Literature: The Making of the Romantic Disease. Springer, 2006.

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