How Tuberculosis Made Edgar Allan Poe Famous

What image does Edgar Allan Poe evoke for you? Ravens? Coffins? Memories of literature class? A terrible fear of being buried alive (in dirt or homework)? 

An upcoming episode of “American Masters” on PBS hammers out discrepancies between the Poe that society has come to know and the Poe who once lived. (And stars Denis O’Hare of “American Horror Story” as the master of horror himself.)

In the hours, months and years following a person’s death, the way the world remembers that person can change. For Poe, however, that process was accelerated by a huge snag in fate.

Rufus W. Griswald, a literary rival of Poe, wrote Poe’s first obituary. And that obituary was filled with lies. 

While mysteries still surround some aspects of Poe’s life and death, some details are clear, such as how deeply Poe was impacted by his mother’s early death from tuberculosis, also known as TB. Eliza Poe died of the disease when Edgar Allan Poe was just a toddler.

Poe’s writing has survived the test of time, but, unfortunately, so has TB. In the U.S., it’s easy to see the disease as nearly eradicated when that’s far from true. TB continues to be a global problem.

Edgar Allan Poe rewire pbs
Edgar Allan Poe circa 1848, the year after his wife died of TB. Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.

Worldwide, 1.8 million people died from TB in 2015, according to a World Health Organization report. That year, TB was one of the top 10 causes of death. It killed more people than HIV/AIDS and malaria. And that year, there were 10.4 million new TB infections. Sixty percent of new cases in 2015 were found in just six countries: India, Indonesia, China, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Africa, the WHO noted. 

Here in the U.S., about three people in every 100,000 have TB, noted Dean Tsukayama, director of the Hennepin County Public Health TB Clinic and the TB medical consultant for the Minnesota Department of Public Health.  

Pulmonary tuberculosis, which is often simply called tuberculosis, is transmitted when a person with TB coughs, speaks or sings, releasing a particular type of bacteria into the air, according to the CDC.   

“Early TB progression doesn’t have a lot of symptoms,” Tsukayama noted, but as the active form of the disease progresses, people might experience fevers that last for weeks, a cough that doesn’t go away, coughing up blood or phlegm from deep inside the lungs, chest pain, night sweats, loss of appetite, weight loss and fatigue. The disease can also spread to other parts of the body (such as the brain) causing a myriad of symptoms which depend upon the other parts of the body that are affected. 

The latent TB problem

About one-third of the world’s population is infected with latent TB, Tsukayama noted. Patients who have this inactive form of TB have a positive skin or blood test result, but they aren’t experiencing symptoms, they have normal chest X-rays and they can’t spread the bacteria to other people, according to the CDC.

Edgar Allan Poe rewire pbsUnfortunately, however, it is possible for latent TB infections to convert to active TB. 

Jay Desai is a pediatric neurologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and an assistant professor at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. 

While Desai was training as a pediatrician in India, he worked in a hospital that treated hundreds of patients with tuberculosis, he said to Rewire. 

He saw young patients die. Others developed lifelong intellectual disabilities or limb weaknesses as a result of the TB bacteria spreading to their brains and other parts of their bodies. 

During the three years he was working at that hospital in India, three of his colleagues contracted TB. For one of these colleagues, the bacteria spread to his brain and he had seizures on the hospital floor in front of patients, Desai said.

Desai himself tested positive for TB during a skin test. Thankfully he had a normal chest X-ray and no symptoms—it was determined that he has a latent TB infection. 

In India and other countries of the world, latent TB often goes unchecked, according to the experts. Achieving the goal of eliminating TB requires treatment of not just active TB infections but treatment of latent TB cases as well. 

Loss made Poe who he is today

Poe’s mother wasn’t the only woman in his life to die of TB. Edgar Allan Poe’s wife–Virginia Poe–died in 1847 of the disease.

Edgar Allan Poe rewire pbsBoth Eliza Poe and Virginia Poe died decades before Robert Koch, a German physician and scientist, discovered the bacterium that causes TB, earning him a Nobel Prize in 1905. Before that, it was considered an untreatable death sentence.

Today, thanks to medical advances, TB is treatable. The problem is many folks don’t have access to the resources they need. 

While the U.S. is already providing TB aid to India and other countries, it’s crucial that we continue this support, Desai said. 

Many patients don’t have the resources to pay for medication. What’s more, some TB medications aren’t made in India, so the country relies on imports, including donations. 

“TB is a disease of the poor for the most part,” he said.

Throughout his life, Edgar Allan Poe was weighed down by the loss of his mother.

“I have many occasional dealings with Adversity—but the want of parental affection has been the heaviest of my trials,” Poe wrote in a letter to Judge Nathaniel Beverly Tucker.  

Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive” premiers Monday, Oct. 30, on “American Masters.” Check your local PBS station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times or watch online at PBS.org.

Rachel Crowell

Rachel Crowell is a Midwest-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives in Iowa with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow Rachel on Twitter at @writesRCrowell. Reach Rachel at [email protected]