Public health nihilism vs pragmatism: history, politics, and the control of tuberculosis

Am J Public Health. 1998 Jul;88(7):1105-17. doi: 10.2105/ajph.88.7.1105.


Tuberculosis (TB) began to decline in the Western world in the mid- to late 1800s. In the United States, the disease receded until the mid-1980s, when that trend was reversed. Although the TB epidemic in the United States subsided in response to public health interventions, it sparked a controversy regarding the relative value of targeted public health measures vs broad social reform. That controversy, which echoed earlier debates calling for structural reform over public health programs, was further strengthened by the historical and demographic studies of Thomas McKeown. His influential thesis maintains that clinical and primary prevention efforts had little effect on TB mortality. In this paper, the historical literature is used to examine whether public health had a significant impact on the decline of TB mortality rates in several countries. Specifically, the paper describes the arguments for and data affirming the efficacy of 2 major public health interventions over time: segregation of those infected with pulmonary TB and eradication of bovine TB. This review finds support for the hypothesis that public health measures, along with other factors, led to falling rates of TB mortality beginning in the late 19th century.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cattle
  • Disease Outbreaks / history
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Public Health / history*
  • Tuberculosis, Bovine / history
  • Tuberculosis, Bovine / prevention & control
  • Tuberculosis, Pulmonary / history*
  • Tuberculosis, Pulmonary / mortality
  • Tuberculosis, Pulmonary / prevention & control
  • United States