Five diseases that are, thankfully, consigned to the past

06.09.2013 18:14

The news that Richard III suffered
from roundworm reminds us how
grateful we should be for the
advances of modern sanitation and
medicine. In both Richard's era
and long after, rich and poor were
horribly vulnerable to diseases that
either killed you efficiently or
made you wish you were dead.
1. Sweating sickness
If Richard had not died at
Bosworth field in 1485, he might
well have been struck down by this
malady. First recorded in
Shrewsbury in mid-April 1485, this
terrifying new disease had reached
London by 7 July. The sweating
sickness resembled the more recent
Ebola virus in its terrifying speed.
It was to return to Britain in 1508,
1517, 1528, and 1551, and in 1552,
the physician John Caius wrote of
how it "immediately killed some in
opening their windows, some in
playing with children in their street
doors, some in one hour, many in
two it destroyed, and at the longest,
to them that merrily dined, it gave
a sorrowful supper".
2. The plague
At its outset, the bubonic plague of
1348 had killed around 40% of the
English population. It was to recur
over the following centuries;
Shakespeare was born in a plague
year. With one in 15 of his parish
infected as he lay in his cradle in
September 1564, the infant genius
may well have been indebted to an
especially murderous cat,
efficiently snapping the necks of
infected rats before they could
approach the swaddled bard. In his
maturity, Shakespeare was lucky to
suffer no more than closed theatres
during the severe London plagues
of 1592-3, 1603, and 1609. And in
1625, two years after the First
Folio, the plague snatched away
around 35,000 Londoners –
perhaps as much as one fifth of the
capital's population.
3. Smallpox
Another thing which both
Shakespeare and Elizabeth I
survived. Elizabeth was scarred
after contracting the disease in
1562 , while in September 1660
smallpox claimed the life of
Charles II's youngest brother,
Henry, and his sister Mary. Until
Edward Jenner introduced
vaccination in 1798 , medicine
remained largely powerless against
this durable scourge. By the 1760s,
the devastating power of smallpox
in America was so well-recognised
that the British commander-in-
chief, Sir Jeffrey Amherst,
discussed, and most likely
deliberately gave, infected blankets
to rebellious Native American
communities as a tactic of early
germ warfare.
4. Worms
As for the roundworms? Recent
commentators were right to
emphasise that Richard III got off
lightly by comparison with other
victims of this parasite. For
hundreds of years the poor
struggled to get meals in their
stomachs, only to have worms of
horrifying size and variety eat
these for them before they were
digested. In 1668, the physician
William Ramsey lamented the
"several species of worms
macerating and direfully
cruciating every part of the bodies
of mankind", asserting that they
had indeed killed "more than either
sword or plague". Ramsey recalled
a sufferer from Montpellier who
voided a flatworm 7ft long.
Innumerable other victims expelled
these creatures through their
mouths, anuses or ears, as well as
in urine. Piero Camporesi tells of
"a five-year-old child in whom
worms had gnawed through the
belly and come out of the navel",
while one 40-year-old man had a
swelling in his groin which finally
split to release three huge worms.
5. Phthiriasis
Richard III might also have taken
comfort from the fact that – so far
as we know – he escaped the now
forgotten parasite infection called
phthiriasis . For this condition,
which was both disgusting and
often fatal, certainly did not spare
the privileged. In 1556, "Portuguese
physician Amatus Lusitanus
described the death of the
nobleman Tabora, who had many
swellings all over his body, from
which small insects streamed out
incessantly; two of his Ethiopian
slaves were employed in emptying
small baskets of them into the sea".
In just a few weeks Tabora died,
devoured alive "by these 'lice'
engendered under his own skin".
Although these "lice" were
apparently mites, they did indeed
eat their victims alive. As Jan
Bondeson explains, the biological
economy of phthiriasis was
horribly simple: the host's flesh was
steadily transformed into ever
more devouring insects. Another
aristocratic victim was the
Elizabethan noblewoman, Lady
Penruddock, who "developed
hundreds of small insect-filled
boils and perished in phthiriasis".
Much later, in 1808, a Prussian
military surgeon examined "a 13-
year-old boy with a large head
tumour". Eight days on, the boy
"seemed to be dying, and the
tumour was enormous". On cutting
it open, the surgeon saw "a mass of
solidly packed insects, but not a
droplet of pus or moisture. After
the insects had been scraped out"
the boy was treated with ointment
and the cavity "injected with
mercury", and he presently made a
complete recovery. Given that
phthiriasis was also used as a
slander against one's powerful
enemies, a king such as Richard
was lucky that he neither caught it,
nor had it bestowed on him by
rumour. Still worried about
Fresher's flu?