White Men Brought Tuberculosis (TB) With Them

white men brought tuberculosis (TB) with them as they colonized America, and how the disease decimated the Native American population. It will contain specific details about this event; including timeframes, and the resulting impact on human history. It will also contain conjecture about what would have happened historically had the event not occurred. Tuberculosis is a deadly disease making a comeback around the world. When it was first introduced to what would become the United States, it was little understood, and uncontrollable.

Tuberculosis History

Tuberculosis is actually a very ancient disease, but it was not until 1882 that it was actually discovered, by a scientist named Robert Koch. Before Koch made his discovery, tuberculosis was called many things, including the most accepted, "consumption," which was thought to be a wasting infection that involved the lungs. At the time, Koch's discovery was an important one for all of mankind. In fact, historian Rene Dubos notes, "All textbooks dealing with infectious diseases consider the discovery of the tubercle bacillus as the highest peak of the science of medical microbiology" (Dubos 93). Tuberculosis usually affects the lungs, but it can also have an effect on the intestines, bones and joints, the skin, and the lymphatic and nervous systems, though this happens less frequently than lung problems. After the disease was discovered, scientists found ways to treat and eventually contain the disease, and it all but disappeared for many decades. However, this containment did not come until 1944, and from the 1600s onward, Native American tribes continued to suffer from tuberculosis, and it altered their populations significantly.

Before the disease disappeared, infected white explorers and settlers brought it to the New World, and consistently affected the Native Americans living in America. This event changed the course of history, because it essentially wiped out whole families and sometimes almost entire tribes, and so, there were fewer Native Americans to get in the way of westward expansion and development. In addition, tuberculosis is making a strong comeback in many third world and developing countries. The problem of tuberculosis is now so widespread that the World Health Organization (WHO) created a program called DOTS to help fight the spread of TB around the world. They are also supporting scientific programs to create drugs that can get rid of the disease faster, and are working to develop up-to-the-minute diagnostic tools to recognize the disease more rapidly and efficiently. Historically, tuberculosis seems to be the disease that will not die, and it continues to threaten populations around the world.

Resistance to Disease

As groups of people mature and create societies, they begin to build up immunities to diseases around them. As this author notes, "Men, animals, and plants normally possess mechanisms that permit them to resist infection, and it can be assumed that this resistance, which is essential to survival, is acquired through the processes of evolutionary adaptation" (Dubos 72). However, when new diseases are brought in from new settlers, or other intruders, the society has to build up new resistances, and this takes time. In the meantime, these new diseases often decimate populations until the population can build up immunities and defenses against the disease. This is what happened to the Native American cultures of the United States when the first explorers and colonists arrived, and then began their spread across the continent. Author Dubos continues, "During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Amerindian and Polynesian populations were decimated by epidemics of smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, and other infections contracted from European explorers and invaders" (Dubos 74). Tuberculosis and smallpox were two of the most prevalent diseases the white men brought with them. Of course, the epidemics caused by tuberculosis did not confine themselves to America. Native people all over North American were affected, including populations in Canada and Mexico. Dubose continues, "In the 1890's the annual death rate from tuberculosis in the Qu'Appelle Valley Reservation of Saskatchewan reached the fantastic figure of close to ten percent of the total population" (Dubose 76). Clearly, tuberculosis was one of the most devastating diseases to attack Native Americans, and it altered history because it helped reduce the populations so dramatically.

Affect on Native Americans

Tuberculosis' affect on Native American tribes is legendary. The earliest epidemics in the New World spread smallpox, measles, and other diseases that wiped out entire populations. Author Dubos notes,

Early in the seventeenth century, for example, the Massachusetts and Narragansett Indians were reduced in a short time from 30,000 and 9,000, respectively, to a few hundreds. In the epidemic of 1837 the Mandan population fell from 1,600 to 31, the Assiniboins lost whole villages, the Crows one third of their population, while the total deaths among Plains tribes amounted to 10,000 in a few weeks. Similar outbreaks occurred in 1870-71 among the Blackfeet (Dubos 74).

Clearly, the native population suffered great losses due to epidemics, and as the 19th century progressed, tuberculosis became one of the leading causes of illness and death among the remaining populations. Many diseases ran quickly through tribes as the white man moved west. However, tuberculosis took longer to detect, but had devastating results. Another historian writes, "Some of these diseases, most importantly tuberculosis, developed slowly and were hard to detect without medical expertise" (Trafzer 6). Most tribes did not have access to medical experts in the 18th and 19th centuries, and so tuberculosis spread and devastated populations. Tuberculosis is also easily spread, the germs travel on dust, and then lodge in the lungs, and so, those infected could easily infect other members of the tribes. Sadly, it was often children who were infected first, which also helped add to the drop in population. Trafzer continues, "In addition, large numbers of people between 15 and 29 years of age died of tuberculosis from the 1920s to the 1940s (Trafzer 9). Thus, an entire generation of young people was wiped out, which meant that young people were not having as many children as before. In addition, some studies showed that full-blooded natives were affected the most by TB. A study indicated, "The leading cause of death among Yakama people between 1888 and 1964 was tuberculosis. A total of 394 (80%) full bloods died and 57 (12%) people of half or more Yakama bloods succumbed to the disease" (Trafzer 213). This indicates that the true Native Americans died in increasing numbers from the disease, creating mixed-blood races that were more resilient to the disease, but gave up their background and bloodlines to become more disease resistant. It seems that full-blooded natives had less resistance to the diseases, and so gradually disappeared.

Studies into the prevalence of TB in Native American populations did not really begin until the early 20th century, and then, it was difficult to diagnose many of the cases because of lack of medical information and nearness to medical facilities. Many of these early studies show that many tribes who had less contact with whites had fewer instances of tuberculosis, such as the Navahos. Studies also showed that climate and area did not seem to affect the prevalence of tuberculosis, but the presence of whites did (Hrdlicka 6).

Once tuberculosis found its way onto the reservations, it was difficult to contain. First, most tribes did not understand the need for sanitized dishes and utensils, especially those used by sick members of the tribe. Because of the lack of sanitation and education, the disease could quickly spread through members of the tribe once it was established. Author Hrdlicka notes of one tribe, "They still use basket bowls for soups, passing them freely to well and sick alike. These baskets are never properly cleaned and surely furnish one means of spreading tuberculosis" (Hrdlicka 17). This lack of understanding about how germs can lead to infection was not only lacking in the Native American culture. Most of the world did not understand the link between germs and infection until the 20th century, and until then, sanitary conditions were often appalling at best. This helped spread a wide variety of diseases among all the races, and it helped many diseases such as tuberculosis rise to nearly epidemic proportions in some areas. This lack of understanding about hygiene and the spread of germs helped perpetuate diseases, and helped them continue to spread. This also helped the disease spread across the continent as more people began to travel westward. Often, it takes a while for the symptoms of TB to show up, and so, those infected with the disease can infect others before they realize they have it themselves. In the early stages, the disease is often mistaken for a cold, flu, or pneumonia, and goes untreated, even in modern society. In the 19th century, diagnosis was even more difficult, and so was treatment, and so far more people died of the disease.

The spread of tuberculosis was so prevalent in the mid- to late-nineteenth century that it has been referred to as the Great White Plague. It also affected immigrants who came to America for a better…