April 26, 1954, wasn’t an ordinary day at work for Dr. Richard Mulvaney. As McLean, Virginia’s first general practitioner, he treated all types of patients, but he’d never dealt with a situation like the one that awaited him at Franklin Sherman Elementary School that morning.
The American Experience film The Forgotten Plague details the impact of Tuberculosis on American society. TB was a problem everywhere. But, the disease hit few places as hard as it hit Washington, D.C. In fact, according to a 1934 report by the District Medical Society, only Memphis, San Antonio and New Orleans had higher death rates among large cities in the United States.
The stats were alarming. They were also somewhat surprising, at least according to some. As the DMS report noted, since D.C. “is less congested and the economic situation is better than in any other city in this country, we should have one of the lowest death rates.” However, the rate in the nation’s capital was “higher even than that of Baltimore, where congestion and the economic situation are notoriously unfavorable.” (Sorry, Baltimore, apparently you were the measuring stick for terrible public health in the 1930s.)
Women’s fashion is a complicated subject, but one doesn’t usually think of it as deadly. However, the fatal dance between health and beauty was a reality for Washington women in the 19th century.
The “corset problem,” or the “corset question” as it was called in the press, was the phenomenon of tightly lacing corsets to constrict the waistline to about 16 inches and sometimes even as small as 13 inches; basically, the smaller the better. These miniscule waists, also called “wasp waists,” were in style in the first half of the 1800s, reaching their peak in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Starting in the latter half of the century, the style began its descent and area newspapers began to debate the practice.