Thursday, 24 March 2011

Ancestors who died of tuberculosis

Today is World Tuberculosis Day. It commemorates 24 March 1882, the day on which Dr Robert Koch announced that he had discovered the cause of tuberculosis - the bacillus Mycobacterium tuberculosis.


Robert Koch


Tuberculosis has been with us since antiquity. Tubercular decay has been found in the spines of Egyptian mummies and the famous Greek physician, Hippocrates, described it as the most prevalent disease of his day. In the 19th century, as people crowded into cities following the Industrial Revolution, living in overcrowded and insanitary conditions, it became the particular scourge of the urban poor.




Effective treatment only became possible after 1946, with the development of the antibiotic streptomycin. However, hopes that tuberculosis could be eradicated have been dashed, following the emergence of antibiotic resistant strains of the disease. In fact, tuberculosis is once again on the rise in all parts of the world, including the developed nations. According to Wikipedia, one third of the world's population is thought to be infected with the disease and new infections occur at a rate of about one per second.


William Bluett


Genealogists do not have to read many death certificates before they come across an ancestor who died of tuberculosis. The disease may be described in a number of ways, the most common being consumption, phthisis and TB. To mark the day, I thought I would list the known victims from my own family tree, whose deaths spanned a period of nearly 100 years:

21 January 1856: Elizabeth McWilliams, nee McCarry, aged 39, Dundee.

5 October 1858: Charlotte Davis nee Aves, aged 40, Cornwall.

2 August 1867: Frederick Thomas Rayman, aged 28, London.

1 April 1880: William Bluett, aged 26, London.

20 March 1883: Ann Hay Clark, aged 17, France.

20 April 1888: Cecilia Rayman, nee Baldwin, aged 54, London.

22 January 1895: Ada Charlotte Gurney, aged 23, London.

16 March 1898: Christian Robb, aged 66, Aberdeenshire.

15 July 1899: Robert Lowe, aged 35, USA.

12 May 1902: Mary Bunch, aged 71, Dundee.

8 September 1912: Matilda Anderson, nee Gall, aged 63, Dundee.

29 October 1940: Ida Blanche Bentley, nee Wreford, aged 29, London.

15 July 1948: Reginald Vivian Bentley, aged 39, London.


TB Poster


The last name in the list is the most tragic of all, my father's beloved brother, Reg. The preceding name is that of his wife Ida, whom he married in 1936. He knew that she was suffering from TB, and that he risked catching it from her, but his love for her was such that he married her anyway.

Reg died in 1948, two years after the first successful trials with streptomycin, but before treatment with the drug had become widespread. The wonderful new medical breakthrough with antibiotics came just too late to save him from this cruel disease.

He was long mourned and sadly missed by his whole family. I was born after his death but my father often spoke of his sunny personality, generosity and wonderful sense of humour.

RIP Uncle Reg.


  1. Great post! I have quite a few ancestors that died of tuberculosis also. It was interesting to read more about it.

  2. Thanks for this post. I too, have family who died from TB, but also a family member who was diagnosed and treated for TB following compulsory X-rays in Australia in the 1970s. Unfortunately she didn't have TB, but in fact had lung cancer which killed her.