The progress of tubercular consumption has been divided by pathologists into three stages. The first stage being that in which a deposit of tubercular matter occurs in the lung tissue, the second is entered on when the tubercles soften, and the third when they have melted down, been expectorated, and cavities have formed. But the real beginning of this most insidious and justly dreaded disease not infrequently antedates for a long time, often for several years, the deposit of any tubercular matter. During all this time an expert examiner can detect the slight but very significant changes already taking place in the pulmonary organs. Physicians determine the condition of the lungs chiefly through the sounds elicited by percussion of the chest walls by the end of the middle finger, or a small rubber hammer adapted to the purpose, and by those produced by the respired air rushing in to and out of the bronchial tubes and air vesicles. The percussion sounds yielded by the chest during what has been aptly called the pre-tubercular stage do not differ from those elicited in health, because it is only when some morbid matter exists in the lungs that the percussion note is altered, therefore negative results only are obtained in the real first stage by this mode of examination.
But important information can be obtained by interrogating the sounds due to the inspired air rushing into and distending the air vesicles. When the lungs are perfectly healthy, these are breezy and almost musical. During the pre-tubercular stage they become drier and harsher; qualities of evil omen that continue to increase as time passes, if properly directed means be not adopted to correct the evil; but so far none of the symptoms that indicate the slightest deposit of tubercle can be detected, but the breathing capacity of such persons is never up to the full requirements of the system. The reader is referred to the table already given, which exhibits the decline of the breathing capacity of persons suffering from consumption in its several stages. When the disease has made such decided progress that tubercles are already deposited in the lungs in sufficient quantity to give rise to the physical signs by which their presence is proved, this carefully compiled table shows that the diminution of the vital capacity already amounts to one-third of that considered by Dr. Hutchinson to be necessary to the maintenance of health.
During the pre-tubercular stage the breathing capacity rarely falls so much as 33 per cent. below the healthy standard, but it is never up to the normal vital volume. This fact is most significant, especially when it occurs in an individual whose relatives have succumbed to this disease; but it rarely attracts sufficient attention from such persons as to induce them to have their breathing capacity measured, much less to take effective measures to bring and keep it up to the healthy standard. So long as there are, to them, no tangible symptoms of approaching mischief, and they feel fairly well, they act as if they thought "that all men were mortal but themselves." Yet it is from among persons who have an inherited but latent tendency to tubercular disease, and whose lung power is below par, that the great army of consumptives who die every year is recruited. It is very difficult to induce persons who ought to be interested in this matter to take effective measures for their future safety when the terrible symptoms accompanying the last stages of the disease often fail to shake the sufferer's confident expectation of recovery; and we sometimes see them engaged in laying plans for the future when death is imminent.
I regret deeply to be obliged to make these statements, because I am convinced that if the suggestions laid down in this work were generally reduced to practice by those who have reason to dread the development of tubercular disease, many valuable lives would be saved.