Tuberculosis in Mississippi

Flyer with a picture of a tuberculosis testing bus with the text Have a chest x-ray Free! Tuberculosis can be stopped if found early.

Tuberculosis (TB) has long been a serious problem in the United States. It was listed as the eighth leading cause of death in Mississippi in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Also known by names such as consumption, the wasting disease, and the white plague, doctors originally thought it was hereditary. Once it was understood that the disease was infectious and spread from person to person in the same way as the cold or flu, the stage was set for public health campaigns to educate the public and limit the number of new cases occurring. In the United States, the first of these began in 1889 in New York City.

In the full grip of a tuberculosis infection, the signs are obvious: bloody cough, fever, noticeable paleness, and loss of weight. However, people can spread the disease to others before they begin showing clear symptoms. X-rays were the best tool to identify those cases.

The first traveling clinic to assist in the tuberculosis diagnosis and education was established in Mississippi in 1934. It was a popular program, and another mobile unit was added in 1937. By the late 1930s, the Mississippi State Sanatorium (with assistance from the State Health Department) operated two mobile clinics with portable X-ray machines. County health officers consulted with the doctors in their counties to construct a list of patients and schedule the mobile clinics. The X-ray films were developed at the State Sanatorium, with reports delivered back to the originating county physician.

Following World War II, the Mississippi Lung Association (then known as the Tuberculosis Association) worked with the State Board of Health to purchase X-ray equipment for traveling clinics. Many new cases of tuberculosis were uncovered through these mass chest X-ray programs. In 1949, four traveling clinics were kept busy around the state, though in 1950 one unit was used as a substitute for any of the others that happened to be out of order. In those two years, more than 485,000 chest X-rays were made by mobile units in Mississippi. Almost 25,000 of those were made in Forrest County in seven visits.  At this point in time, tuberculosis was listed as the eighth leading cause of death in Mississippi.  Forrest County had 204 known cases of tuberculosis, about half of which were actively spreading the infection in the general population.

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For more information tuberculosis in Mississippi:

Calder, Marvin R. Mississippi State Sanatorium: History, 1916-1976. Magee, MS: M.R. Calder, Messenger Press, 1986. Cook or McCain Library RC309.M7 C34x

Mississippi State Board of Health. Annual Report of the State Board of Health of the State of Mississippi. Statistics and general information in each report.
McCain Library RA94.M57a

Mississippi State Sanatorium. Mississippi State Sanatorium: A Book of Information about Tuberculosis and Its Treatment in Mississippi. Sanatorium, MS: Mississippi State Sanatorium and the Mississippi Tuberculosis Association, 1939.
McCain Library RC309.M7 M57x 1939

Heindl, Brittain. Tuberculosis and Hookworm: The Intertwine of Two Unrelated Diseases in Institutionalizing the Mississippi Public Health System. University of Southern Mississippi, Department of History Honors Thesis, 2008. Cook Library LD3425.2 .H485 2008h

For more information tuberculosis in general:

Dormandy, Thomas. The White Death: A History of Tuberculosis. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
Cook Library RC311.D67 2000

Ott, Katherine. Fevered Lives: Tuberculosis in American Culture since 1870. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Cook Library: RC309.A5 O88 1996

Rothman, Shelia M. Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History. New York: BasicBooks, 1994.
Cook Library RC310.R68 1994

Teller, Michael E. The Tuberculosis Movement: A Public Health Campaign in the Progressive Era. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Cook Library RC310.T45 1988

NOTE: The poster pictured above is from the Papers of Jackie Yelverton Burton (M263, Box 1, Folder 8) held in Special Collection, University Libraries, University of Southern Mississippi.

Text for this “Item of the Month” prepared by Diane DeCesare Ross.