On this day in 1882, Robert Koch announced his discovery of the TB bacillus. In commemoration, March 24th has been designated World Tuberculosis Day, a day to promote awareness of the continuing global TB epidemic, and call on governments, affected communities, civil society organizations, health-care providers, and international partners to join the drive to reach, treat and cure all those who are ill today.
As part of our collections we have a collection of Christmas seals, used around the world in the twentieth century to gather funds for treating tuberculosis, which I thought it would be ideal to share on this day of global awareness.
Christmas seals are like rather like stamps, only they don’t pay for postage, but raise funds for tuberculosis charities. The idea was first developed in 1904, by a Danish postal clerk, Einar Holbøll, and over 6 years enough money was raised to build a sanatorium, the Christmas Seal Sanatorium (Julemærkesanatoriet) in Kolding. The idea soon spread through Europe and from there, around the world.
Our collection comes courtesy of Dr. John R Beal, a physician who worked at the Brompton Hospital, as a tuberculosis officer around the north of England, and as officer in charge of the tuberculosis centre in Pune during World War II. He was a keen collector of Christmas seals, which his son has kindly been donated to our archives.
The seals come from all over the world, and I think that one thing they really bring to light is the truly global impact of tuberculosis; the drive to create and purchase them can only have come from communities which were affected by this deadly disease. The images used in these stamps are mostly Christmas themed, although several show nurses caring for children, sanatoria, or anti-tuberculosis slogans; the only way you can tell that they are about tuberculosis is the double-barred cross of Lorraine which features on many of them. This symbol was chosen as the symbol of the international fight against tuberculosis at a conference in Berlin in 1902, and the fact that it was recognisable enough to act as shorthand for tuberculosis on these stamps suggests that the cause was very well-known, much like the pink ribbon or similar charity symbols nowadays.
Tuberculosis may have fallen away from our awareness in the UK, but it is still a very real issue for many around the world. In 2013, 9 million people fell ill with TB and 1.5 million died from the disease. These stamps act as a reminder that tuberculosis has always been a global issue; let’s hope that someday it will be considered a part of global history.