In developed countries the major tuberculosis epidemics declined long before the disease became curable in the 1940s. We present a theoretical framework for assessing the intrinsic transmission dynamics of tuberculosis. We demonstrate that it takes one to several hundred years for a tuberculosis epidemic to rise, fall and reach a stable endemic level. Our results suggest that some of the decline of tuberculosis is simply due to the natural behaviour of an epidemic. Although other factors must also have contributed to the decline, these causal factors were constrained to operate within the slow response time dictated by the intrinsic dynamics.