Horrid coughs and sneezes and dead diseases

Polio is on the brink of joining a long list of historical illnesses. Jennifer Evans and Sara Read reveal a few other ailments thankfully no longer with us.

Bad medicine: Irish healer Valentine Greatrakes claimed he could cure Kings Evil. (Picture: Wellcome Library, London).
Bad medicine: Irish healer Valentine Greatrakes claimed he could cure Kings Evil. (Picture: Wellcome Library, London).

Last week the Department for International Development made the welcome announcement that polio was going the way of diseases such as smallpox, and is on the verge of eradication as a result of a worldwide campaign.

The campaign has achieved an incredible reduction in the number of people contracting the disease of 99 per cent by the end of the 20th century. While for many of us the only association we have with polio is the oral vaccine given on a sugar cube at school, the so-called iron lungs, or vacuum machines which inflated and deflated the lungs of sufferers while they recovered from the paralysis the disease wrought, are well within living memory.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

These machines saved thousands of lives and were in use from their development in 1928 until the 1970s. As with smallpox, this potential eradication is the result of a successful immunisation programme.

In England, the battle against smallpox was pioneered by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who had seen a procedure known as variolation. Here are some other illnesses that have happily become history.

Rising of the Lights

The disease “Rising of the Lights” was a standard entry on bills of ­mortality (published death statistics) in the 17th century. As any butcher would be able to tell you, lights is an old name for lungs. Many doctors believed that only vulgar people used the term to ­describe a tightening sensation in the chest, difficulty breathing and a cough.

In 1630, Sir William Vaughan, who promoted colonisation in Newfoundland, suggested a rather different treatment. He explained that the best cure was made by soaking the lungs of a fox in vinegar then drying them out in an oven, and then taking the resultant product in liquor. Sir William claimed that everyone knew that “of all Creatures the Foxe hath the longest breath, and the strongest Winde”. It therefore made sense that eating a fox’s lungs would improve lung capacity and cure the disease.

Green Sickness

This colourfully named condition was familiar to everyone in the 16th and 17th centuries. It stopped being diagnosed in the early 20th century and even had its own death notice published, an article entitled “Chlorosis – an Obituary” in 1936. This disease was peculiar to young women who were left breathless, lacking an appetite, and with a green tinge to their skin.

Physicians blamed these women’s developing reproductive organs since amenorrhea, the absence of menstruation, was another symptom. Treatments included travelling to spas such as Scarborough or Harrogate to drink the iron-rich waters, or letting blood from the ankle. Most physicians agreed that the best cure was marriage.

King’s Evil

While many diseases have disappeared or become significantly rarer, others’ names have changed beyond recognition. Swollen lymph nodes caused by the tuberculosis bacillus was, in the 16th and 17th century, called the King’s Evil. Its common name derived from its cure.

The monarch of the country, in imitation of Christ, was thought to be a conduit for divine healing so could heal people with a touch. This cure was so popular that one manuscript records that James II touched an astonishing 4,893 people between January of 1685 and June of 1686 in an effort to cure them of the disease. For those who weren’t able to obtain such a cure, more mundane options were available including topical ointments or allowing a surgeon to cut the swellings away.

Maladies and Medicines: Exploring Health and Healing, 1540-1740, published by Pen and Sword, is out now.