Friday 20 April 2012

TB and the Weather

This is a long entry - so stick with me...

Ages ago while i was beginning to research the Bronte's lives and the connections to the weather i noticed (from the Shacklton weather records kept from 1801 until 1857) that the year that Branwell Bronte and Emily Bronte died of TB, 1848, had very high rainfall: 40.38 inches when the average rainfall was 32 inches. And of course Anne died of TB in May 1849. So i started to wonder if there is a connection between wet weather having a bad affect on TB. I've tried to get hold of historical writings on TB and also to look at contemporary reports too. However it's not been that easy to find any research that links the two.

I got an email this week in reply to one of my enquiries from Professor Flurin Condrau from the Medizinhistorisches Insitut und Museum at the Universitat Zurich in Switzerland. My main question was: are there any reports that directly link wet weather to TB? Here is his reply (shortened version)

Dear Rebecca,

Your project sounds really interesting. It's funny that you ask these questions because it has to be one of the most relevant yet strangely underresearched themes.

The relation between TB and weather, or better still, climate is subject to an enormous literature often connected to the Alps. In other words, it's not so much about whether it rains or doesn't but whether high altitude might offer protection from TB. Of course, weather is itself something that needs to be culturally read - recently moving from Britain to Switzerland has taught me a lot about cultural readings of weather - so I doubt whether your question can find an answer: did bad weather contribute to the Bronte's TB.

OK? I hope this helps. I would be interested to hear more about this project as and when. 
Good luck with the work!

All good wishes,


I'm thrilled he took the time to reply and in his email were a couple of names and links to things i should read. So, my quest continues.

The image above is a photocopy of Patrick Bronte's medical handbook that he kept in the Parsonage. Of Tubercular Consumption it says (amongst other things):

" The following draught is much worthy of attention as a palliative for the cough:
Take of extract of hemlock, extract of henbane, of each, five grains; mucilage of gum arabic, two drachms. Rub these well together until they are thoroughly incorporated, then add, acetated liquor of ammonia, pure water, of each, half an once; syrup, one drachm. This makes a draught, to be taken every four hours."

Not sure about that myself - hemlock and henbane?

The handwriting at the bottom of the text is Patrick Bronte's and he comments:
"Mr S..... surgeon, Leeds, said that change of place or climate, could prove beneficial, only in the early stage of consumption - that afterwards, the excitment caused by change of scene, and beds, and strange company, did harm."


  1. As i read on.. your project is more and more intriguing and interesting.

    I am not a doctor or dont claim to know anything about TB.
    What I do know is:- here in Portugal..all children entering school have to have a TB screening,before entering into Highschool. its a sort of mini x ray. Of course since the Bronte days..the vaccine is available.
    What was so amazing to me , some time ago while I was teaching,near Lisbon
    A young healthy (or so we thought) rather big boy of 15 contacted TB. The school was closed for over 10 days. It was fumigated and everything cleaned spik and span. Only when there was no sign of disease were the studants allowed back in. We were all in wonder! how come in this day and age.
    TB is highly contagious. It still exsists in South Africa amongst the black population, that do not have access to modern medicine. There are a lot of deaths from TB there. Also in the Indian community of Southern Africa.. My best friend was a field nurse in S.A out in the country. she told me some awful stories of families dying of TB.. Diet and bad living conditions could be one of the reasons the Bronte's caught it, as they lived in very close quarters in the Parsonage..and didnt have much money.
    I remember my mother telling me that when you contracted TB.. you were sent to the sea side..and the children's beds were outside in the wind and the cold during the day.. inside in the rain.
    I am sure that you know all this..but its fascinating.
    I am not sure if the weather has anything to do with it.! maybe 50%..damp walls , and cold rooms.
    Living in close proximity and poor diet could be part of it. A lack of vitimin A.. so the diet could have been poor.
    Happy days with your project.
    Its cold cold where you are
    have a good weekend.
    best wishes

  2. I, too, have heard that recuperating by the sea was helpful for someone with lung disease. Although personally I find damp air is the worst thing for asthma and bronchitis! Not sure if there's a difference with TB. Is there any connection between their deaths and the stories of contaminated ground water relative to the parsonage's proximity to the cemetery... or is that simply a myth? Your project is such fun to follow! Thank you for making this site open for us to follow your progress.


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