Consumption Old West Era True West Magazine

What can you tell me about living with consumption in the Old West era?

Paul Gortarez
Phoenix, Arizona

Consumption is an early term for tuberculosis. People suffering from it were also called “lungers.” For a time, in some areas, it was considered a romantic condition, afflicting artists and writers. In reality, it was a terrible disease, often fatal. Doctors in the East often advised those who’d contracted it to move to an arid place like Arizona.

Many did so and lived long lives, while others succumbed to it. For the most part, tuberculars were not quarantined, in part because it was believed to be hereditary, not contagious, until 1882. At that point, many were consigned to tent cities, segregated from the general population. Still, some folks—like Doc Holliday—freely roamed the West, often coughing blood into handkerchiefs and self-medicating through alcohol or drugs.  Many slowly wasted away until their ultimate deaths.

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona Outlaws and Lawmen; The History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or email him at

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