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Galdós and Medicine


Michael Stannard

Benito Pérez Galdós (1843–1920) is revered as Spain’s greatest nineteenth-century author. Writing in the realist tradition of Dickens, Zola and Balzac, he described life in Madrid with unequalled fidelity. In addition, he was unique among novelists of his time in his knowledge of medicine, revealed in his depictions of mental and physical disease. While critical analyses of his novels abound, this book is the first detailed study of the medicine that appears in his novels and newspaper articles.
Galdós acquired his medical knowledge at a time of great changes: anaesthesia and antisepsis were developed, and the germs responsible for many human diseases identified. French medicine was especially influential, though increasing international exchange resulted in new ideas also being adopted from England, Germany and Italy. The author of this study analyses Galdós’s network of medical contacts, together with some of the sources available to them. Subjects such as epidemic disease, madness and children’s diseases are examined and the light they throw upon the medicine of the time is discussed. The concluding chapter of the book assesses the significance of Galdós’s depictions of disease and of doctors.
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Chapter 3: Endemic Diseases: Tuberculosis, Syphilis and Angina



Endemic Diseases: Tuberculosis, Syphilis and Angina

Unlike the epidemic diseases that spring to public attention by the sudden appearance of unusually large numbers of victims, endemic diseases, endemias, maintain a lower profile but a relatively constant presence in the community. In Galdós’s Madrid there were many endemic diseases, typhoid and typhus among them, in addition to the legion infections that primarily affected children, the subject of Chapter 7. Two great endemic diseases of adults that Galdós portrays in his novels are tuberculosis and syphilis. Neither disease varied with the seasons and both appeared in all levels of society. While endemic diseases did not cause the kind of panic that outbreaks of cholera inspired, the continuous but less dramatic erosion of the population by tuberculosis, for instance, resulted in more deaths over time.1

Understanding of the cause of tuberculosis evolved during the course of Galdós’s writing career, notably following Robert Koch’s announcement of his discovery of the responsible organism, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, in 1882. The disease had been observed to run in families for centuries and was perceived to have increased by the 1880s such that it accounted for 20% of the overall mortality of the population.2 It was recognized as being associated with the crowding seen in the poorly ventilated hovels of the urban poor, and among soldiers housed in military barracks. In addition, it was thought to be the result of familial predisposition or diathesis, which, in turn, was...

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