CDDEP: The exhibit you’re working on now, “The Romantic Disease”, focuses on tuberculosis. Why did you decide to concentrate on TB?
ANNA DUMITRIU:One-third of the world’s population is infected with [latent] TB and it’s the world’s largest infectious killer. Because of drug resistance and other diseases like HIV, it’s coming back in more developed countries. It’s the first disease to ever be found in human remains, really the oldest disease, but it remains a major challenge. If we become complacent with it, it could make a huge comeback in the Western world as these bacteria are taking on new drug resistances.
What fascinates me about it is the way it affected the world and how people lived in the past. It was nicknamed “The Romantic Disease” because it gave a kind of romantic death to people – they’d have plenty of time to slowly waste away and look pale. There was even a fashion at that time for ladies to look as pale as possible – they would use black make-up to make their cheeks look hollow and sometimes paint blue veins on their faces to make their skin appear more translucent.
In the beginning of the 20th century, it was thought that the primary cause of TB was household dust: “Where there’s dust there’s danger.” They used to think that the sputum people would cough up would dry into dust and spread the infection. But it would be very unlikely for that to happen as the particles are too large. And in ancient times, many natural dyes were antimicrobial, so it may be that the discovery of some natural dyes were born of attempts to make cures for infections such as TB. Some of these will be shown in the exhibit.
The exhibit also features lots of little lungs made out of felt and dust. They’re “contaminated”, you could say, with the extracted DNA of killed TB. They are non-infectious and have been through a very stringent sterilization protocol to allow them to be displayed. This is actually part of a process to do whole-genome sequencing of TB, so this exhibit really shows where we were and where we’re going to be [with regard to TB].