Abraham Rogarshevsky's death from tuberculosis was a sad but all-too common occurrence. In 1918 alone, 4,987 of Manhattan's 2.3 million residents were reported as having died from the disease. As staggering as this statistic might sound, it marked what was then a dramatic improvement in the prevention of tuberculosis.
Indeed, during the nineteenth century the disease was one of the leading causes of death in the United States. In New York in 1812, the so-called White Plague claimed 697 out of every one hundred thousand people. The rise of dark, unsanitary factories and overcrowded living conditions during this period was especially conducive to the spread of tubercle bacillus, the germ that caused the disease.
At the time, contracting tuberculosis was akin to being handed a death sentence: victims could be temporarily comforted but not cured. Fresh air, rest and a good diet were prescribed as palliatives for patients, who tended to suffer from swollen lungs, weight loss and fatigue.
By the end of the nineteenth century, tuberculosis was claiming far fewer victims, thanks in large part to improved work and living conditions and the rise of preventive medicine. Legislators also helped stem the spread of the disease by clamping down on spitting (the first anti-spitting notices were put up in street cars in New York in 1891).
New York's local government likewise worked to make the city's housing stock more sanitary, most notably by passing the Tenement Housing Law of 1901. By 1910, these measures had begun to take hold: over the next ten years, tuberculosis slipped from the second leading cause of death in New York City to the third.
These laws and improvements, though, could only contain the disease; a cure remained elusive until the 1950s, when antibiotics were developed.