Consumption – a romanticized death

La Bohème from the Metropolitan Opera April 2014; Wikipedia commons image

I’m having trouble finding much information about my great grandmother Catherine. She died young in 1913, at age 42, and there isn’t a long life’s worth of documentation on her. Catherine Agnes was born in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1861, of Irish parents. Her surname shows up sometimes as McElmeel, McElmee, or McNamee. I have found her parents, listed as Francis and Catherine McNamee, in the 1860 US Federal Census for Waltham – after that, they seem to disappear.

One fairly solid document I’ve been able to obtain is Catherine’s death certificate. Even though the information it contains wasn’t contributed by Catherine herself (her husband Charles Freeman Brewster reported the death), it still has some value. One interesting tidbit was her cause of death was listed as consumption, which explains why she died at a relatively young age. Consumption refers to tuberculosis, also called phthisis or the white plague.

Tuberculosis (TB) was the leading cause of death in industrialized countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1900, the majority of people in Europe and North America carried the tuberculosis bacillus, and 80% of those who developed the disease died of it. It was considered a “gentle death”, because it often took years for a TB patient to die, thus giving the victim and their families more than sufficient time to prepare. A number of prominent artists, composers, and writers had consumption, and the disease was seen to bestow a romantic, spiritually purifying death, transforming consumptives into poetic, beautiful ghosts. Among symptoms of TB were a pale complexion and unusually bright eyes; oddly, upper-class young women would sometimes lighten their faces with makeup to simulate the look.

The long list of famous people who contracted tuberculosis includes:

  • Poets John Keats,  Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Dylan Thomas
  • Playwrights Anton Chekov and Eugene O’Neill
  • Writers Anne and Emily Brontë (and possibly their sister Charlotte too), Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen Crane, Dashiell Hammet, Franz Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, Guy de Maupassant, Balzac, Washington Iriving, George Orwell, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and Henry David Thoreau
  • Artists Watteau, Paul Gauguin, and Modigliani
  • Composers Boccherini, Mozart, Chopin, Paganini, and Igor Stravinsky
  • Royalty such as Charles IX, Louis XIII, Louis XVII, and Napoleon II of France, Henry VII and Edward VI of England
  • Prominent figures such as Alexander Graham Bell, Sarah Bernhardt, W. C. Fields, Vivien Leigh, Jay Gould, Louis Braille, Florence Nightingale, Eleanor Roosevelt, Simon Bolivar, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Ringo Starr, Ho Chi Minh, Cat Stevens, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu



  1. Birth certificate obtained by writing to the NY State Department of Health Vital Records
  2. Harvard University Library Open Collections “Contagion – Historical views of diseases and epidemics“, information about tuberculosis in Europe and North America 1800-1922
  3. The history of tuberculosis by Thomas M. Daniel, article from Respiratory Medicine, November 2006
  4. At the Deathbed of Consumptive Art by David M. Morens, Emerg Infect Dis., November  2002

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