Dum spiro, spero – whilst I breathe, I hope.
Spes is the Latin word for hope, and from this comes spes phthisica the hope of the person afflicted with phthisis, otherwise known as consumption, now known as tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis was known as consumption, caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis discovered by the microbiologist Robert Koch in 1885. At the time one in seven deaths in Europe was caused by this disease, there were no antibiotics, and the only way to control it was to isolate the patients in sanatoria.
It was in a hospital, previously a sanatorium, that I first worked on moving to England in 1975. We had only three TB drugs in routine use at the time, Streptomycin which also made the patients deaf by damaging their auditory nerves, Isoniazid which I doubt had any effect on the disease, and PAS, an aspirin derivative which was taken in large tablets that caused such painful stomach erosions that the patients would surreptitiously throw it out of the window killing the grass on the lawns outside.
It was at this hospital I encountered the euphoria of hope in young people dying of tuberculosis – spes phthisica. In the older times it was believed to be peculiar to consumptives in which physical wasting led to euphoric flowering and creative aspects of the soul; genius would burst forth. Many of the great poets dying of tuberculosis produced their best work in their final months of life. Keats great output during the last year of life was thought to be directly due to consumption. Shelly, similarly. Alexander Dumas Fils (1852) wrote; ”It was the fashion to suffer from the lungs…. It was good form to spit blood after any emotion that was at all sensational, and to die before the age of thirty”.
My memory is of a young woman wracked with TB acquired during treatment for an autoimmune disease, with terrible arthritic joints, coughing blood, hardly able to breathe, smiling the entire time, discussing with me how to set a perfect dinner table, what glassware she would choose, and the menu she planned to prepare for her next dinner party. She passed on within a month.
In the background of this picture is a chest X-ray from a man with tuberculosis. In the foreground the rotten stump of a tree branch. The angle of the forked branch reminded me of the arms of a crucifix, into the corner I have inserted an eye of hope gazing toward heaven.