Thursday, September 05, 2013

Dis-ease by Any Other Name

During internet wanderings related to genealogical matters I came across a Glossary of Archaic Medical Terms, Diseases and Causes of Death, which is, no doubt, used by those family history detectives who have discovered a death certificate of one of their forebears bearing what seems, to 21st century eyes, a very peculiar cause of death. I've extracted a few of the more colourful terms from the long list presented. There are images of actual entries of these on a death certificate at the website.

Covent Garden Ague
Venereal disease: The Ladybird disease. He broke his shins against Covent Garden rails, he caught the disease. [Grose1823].

Covent, or Convent Garden, vulgarly called Common Garden. Anciently, the garden belonging to a dissolved monastery; now famous for being the chief market in London for fruit, flowers, and herbs. The theatres are situated near it. In its environs are many brothels, and, not long ago, the lodgings of the second order of ladies of easy virtue were either there, or in the purieus of Drury lane.

King's Evil
Morbus Regis. A scrofulous disease, the curing of which was formerly attributed to the king of England, from the time of Edward the Confessor. This practice was called touching for the evil. [Hoblyn1855].

An old, but not yet obsolete, name given to the scrofula, which in the popular estimation was deemed capable of cure by the royal touch. The practice of "touching" for the scrofula, or " King's Evil," was confined amongst the nations of Europe to the two Royal Houses of England and France. As the monarchs of both these countries owned the exclusive right of being anointed with the pure chrism, and not with the ordinary sacred oil, it has been surmised that the common belief in the sanctity of the chrism was in some manner inseparably connected with faith in the healing powers of the royal touch. [Britannica1911].

Scrofula, a tubercular infection of the throat lymph glands; also sometimes syphilis. The name originated in the time of Edward the Confessor, with the belief that the disease could be cured by the touch of the king of England. [Webster1913].

Rising of the Lights
The Croup (in some parts of England).
An old popular term for pleurisy. A vulgar name for croup. [Appleton1904].

Autumn / Autumnal Fever
Autumnal Fever generally assumes a bilious aspect. Those of the intermittent kind are much more obstinate than when they appear in the spring. [Dunglison1868].
A fever that prevails largely in autumn, such as typhoid, typhomalarial, and malarial fevers. [Appleton1904].

Illuminating Gas Poisoning
Toxic asphyxiation due to the displacement of oxygen from oxyhemoglobin by carbon monoxide. [Medical Dictionary Online].

Illuminating gas: was a synthetic mixture of hydrogen and hydrocarbon gases produced by destructive distillation (pyrolysis) of bituminous coal or peat. It was used for gas lighting, as it produces a much brighter light than natural gas or water gas. Although also sometimes called coal gas, it should not be confused with water gas or syngas, which are made from anthracite coal or coke plus water, and chemically quite different. Illuminating gas was much less toxic than these other forms of coal gas, but less could be produced from a given quantity of coal.
Illuminating gas consists mainly of methane, ethylene and hydrogen. The experiments with distilling coal were described by John Clayton in 1684. George Dixon's pilot plant exploded in 1760, setting back the production of illuminating gas a few years. The first commercial application was in a Manchester cotton mill in 1806. In 1901, studies of the defoliant effect of leaking gas pipes lead to the discovery that ethylene is a plant hormone. [AllExperts Encyclopedia].
And, as Carl Jung wrote, “The gods have become our diseases” - so there's
Saturnism Lead Poisoning


Mercurial Tremors Workers in mercury, such as water-gilders, looking-glass makers, and the makers of barometers and thermometers, are apt to suffer from a peculiar form of shaking palsy, known as the trembles, or mercurial tremor. This disease affects most frequently those who are exposed to mercurial fumes. The victim is affected with tremors when an endeavor is made to exert the muscles, so that he is unable, for instance, to convey a glass of water to the lips steadily, and when he walks he breaks into a dancing trot. The treatment consists in removal from the mercurial atmosphere, baths, fresh air, and the administration of iron and other tonics. [Britanica1911]

Hmm - So Saturn and Mercury get name checks; Venus, of course is the root of Venereal, which does seem unfair, Plutonic might be nearer the mark, but Pluto hadn't been discovered when venereal disease was first named sometime around the 15th century. Jupiter and Mars, as far as I can see, didn't lend their names, or characteristics, to any disease.


mike said...

The world of our ancestors was never the same after the discovery of the microscope with microbes and the cellular components of human tissue coming into view.

I've always been intrigued with the archaic cures and preventatives. Many herbal remedies and old-wives'-tales have held-up or been rediscovered.

Many of the remedies of the last several centuries contained very harmful substances, most notably the heavy metals. Some couldn't help but allay various mental conditions, with their narcotic components. Happiness was just a sip away with Coca Cola's cocaine additive, or those little pills to help Aunt Martha's nervousness, with heroin as the main ingredient! Of course, many had alcohol as their base.

It's interesting to note that many forms of incense were used throughout history to cleanse the air of impurities. Studies of the past several decades have shown the herbal constituents of incense, when burned and smoke generated, actually do kill air-borne microbes.

ex-Chomp said...

Very interesting indeed

Twilight said...

mike ~~ Yes - I've often wondered exactly how early humans discovered herbal and other treatments for certain ailments. Trial and error sounds a bit far fetched, but what other explanation is there?
i can think of one but it'd be a bit too sci-fi.

Twilight said...

ex-Chomp ~ It makes us feel grateful that we're in the 21st century, in spite of all its faults (I think.....)

anyjazz said...

Interesting bits of information. Funny what we turn up in the course of a day's research in other areas.

Twilight said...

anyjazz ~ Yes, it's a bit like digging around in antique stores - about which we've come to know quite a lot. ;-)