When classic English poet John Keats coughed up blood in 1821, he knew it wasn’t a good sign. According to medical historian Dr. Howard Markel, Keats was able to diagnose the disease that would end his life: consumption.
Markel’s essay, How poet John Keats met his early end, explores the poet’s relationship with medicine.
Now called tuberculosis or TB, consumption makes frequent appearances in English literature from the 19th century, killing off characters and instigating dramatic plots. It also was a frequent cause of death for the authors of that literature, as well as thousands of others, before antibiotics were finally developed in the mid-20th century.
John Keats would have known exactly how deadly consumption was. Keats had extensive training in medicine through an apprenticeship with an “apothecary surgeon,” Markel said. He might have gone on and practiced as a doctor, but he started writing poetry in the year before he became eligible to treat patients.
In addition, Keats took care of his younger brother, who was sick from the disease. Markel said that might be how the poet caught the disease.
Today, tuberculosis is not very common in the United States or Western Europe, but it is still a killer around the world.
Even though fans of Romantic literature might be forgiven for thinking that consumption is a poetic disease, Markel insists that tuberculosis is “a disgusting mess, both for the person who has it and the person who treats it.”
For more about John Keats’ poetic life and disgusting death, listen above.