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10 Bizarre Ways Our Ancestors Explained Disease

by Laura Martisiute
fact checked by Jamie Frater

We all admire and respect medical experts for their knowledge and ability to help us overcome various sicknesses and diseases. We forget, however, that doctors are only human and as capable of mistakes as the rest of us. This was especially true in the past, when the diseases that afflicted the human race led doctors and medical experts to some truly bizarre theories and explanations.

10Spread Of Diseases Caused By Night Air


Photo credit: Robert Seymour

In the Middle Ages, the theory of miasma was born. According to this theory, “bad air,” which emanated from decaying organic matter, caused diseases such as cholera, Chlamydia and the Black Death. It seemed to worsen around swamps and during the night. Thus most people avoided the night air by going indoors and keeping their windows tightly shut.

When John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, two prominent American figures, were traveling together in 1776, they were forced to share a room in a crowded inn. Adams later noted in his autobiography that “the window was open and I, who was an invalid and afraid of the Air in the night (blowing upon me) shut it close.” However, Franklin objected and convinced Adams to reopen the window. The fact that a highly educated man like Adams, who later went on to become president, believed that nighttime air was noxious, shows us that the miasma theory was widespread and not solely limited to the poorer, uneducated classes. Indeed, doctors and other highly educated men supported the miasma theory for over a century.

Though the reasoning was flawed, closed windows did have some good health effects. Closed windows helped the prevention of malaria or the poison which produces autumnal fever and the exclusion of moisture, which often chills the body.

In the second half of the 19th century, the miasma theory was replaced by the germ theory.

9Epilepsy Caused By Divine Visitation


Photo credit: Pieter Paul Rubens

The early Greeks thought that epilepsy (a word which originated from the Greek verb epilambaneim, meaning “to seize, possess, or afflict”) was caused by “divine” visitation. Epilepsy was also known as a “sacred disease,” and it went by more than just one name. Some other names for epilepsy in Ancient Greece were “seliniasmos,” “Herculian disease” (because it affected the demigod Hercules), and “demonism.”

Epilepsy was considered to be a miasma—pollution or noxious form of “bad air”—that was cast upon the human soul. Thus epilepsy was regarded as divine punishment for sinners and was connected with Selene, the goddess of the Moon, since it was believed that those who offended her were afflicted with the disease.

The Ancient Greeks attributed the disease to different deities depending on the different symptoms that occurred during an epileptic fit. Thus, if the fit included teeth gnashing, epilepsy was ascribed to the goddess Cybele (goddess of nature). If the victim of epilepsy screamed like a horse, the disease was ascribed to the god Poseidon (god of the sea, earthquakes, and horses). The cure for epilepsy included a process of ritual purification as well as well as the recital of healing chants.

8Leprosy Caused By Divine Retribution


Photo credit: Vinzenz von Beauvais

In the Middle Ages, leprosy was thought to have been caused by divine retribution. Victims of leprosy were believed to be suffering from the disease as a result of their wickedness and personal sin. This explanation for the disease was especially popularized by several biblical accounts, in which leprosy is sent to sinners as a divine punishment. Leprosy was seen both as a disease of the body and a disease of the soul. Thus, lepers were seen as a threat to society not only because of their physical condition but also because of their moral decay which the morally upright were terrified of catching.

As a result, lepers were treated horribly during the Middle Ages—they were shunned by society, were often forced to wear bells to warn people of their approach, and sometimes had to attend their own funeral mass during which they were declared officially dead to the community.

7Colds Caused By Waste Matter


Photo credit: Nina Aldin Thune

The ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates is often considered as the father of medicine. He was the first person to dispel the myth that diseases were caused by angry gods and insisted that illnesses were caused by nothing more but outside factors on Earth. In fact, his influence and teachings were so influential that in the past, physicians took a Hippocratic Oath, swearing to uphold specific ethical standards.

However, in a time when the most absurd explanations for diseases were born, Hippocrates was no exception and contributed some crazy theories of his own, such as his belief that colds were caused by waste matter buildup on the brain. According to Hippocrates, when this waste matter overflowed, it resulted in a runny nose. This is where the Greek word for the common cold, catarrh originated. In Greek, catarrh means “flow,” and the Greek word is in fact still used in English today.

6Mental Illness Caused By Witchcraft


Photo credit: Johann Jakob Wick

In the Middle Ages, people who suffered from mental disorders were thought to be either under the curse of witches or wizards or possessed by the devil. The most common medieval treatment of mental illness was exorcism. During the Renaissance, burning the body and saving the captive soul was the preferred method of “treating” the mentally ill.

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, all the tragedies of humanity fell on witches and diabolical possession. Women were condemned as witches far more frequently than men because it was widely believed that women were more likely to be afflicted by demonic possession due to their weaker and more imperfect nature. It was thought that a woman’s reproductive system was the proof of this, with the uterus being the source of evil. Supposedly, during their menstruation cycle, women were full of venom that contaminated them and gave them power to contaminate others.

It was also believed that through imagination one could produce physical changes in the body, and thus imagination was seen as another form of witchcraft. It was thought that the uterus received pathological images that could not be subdued. However the principal process of imagination originated in the spleen. Thus, because two organs—the uterus and the spleen—which could produce pathological images existed, women had two sources of evil and were more powerful than men, since men could only practice evil through their spleen.

5Hysteria Caused By A Wandering Womb


Photo credit: Andre Brouillet

In Ancient Greece, women who suffered from any type of mental illness were considered to be victims of hysteria. And hysteria, according to the ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates, was caused by a wandering womb. According to the Ancient Greek physician Aretaeus, the womb could move upward and downward as well as left and right. So for example, if the womb moved up, it caused sluggishness, lack of strength, and vertigo. If the womb moved down, it caused a sense of choking as well as a loss of speech and sensibility. The womb moving downward could also cause a sudden, incredible death.

To cure a wandering womb, physicians applied pleasant scents, such as honey, to the vagina because the womb advanced toward them. Alternatively, the womb could also be driven away from the upper body to where it belonged through the application foul scents. Other prescriptions for a wandering womb included constantly chewing on cloves of garlic, hot and cold baths, consistent sex, as well as frequent pregnancy to keep the bored womb occupied and less likely to migrate around the female body.

4Porphyria Explained As Vampirism


Many myths surrounding vampirism emerged during the Middle Ages. However, it is now believed that a rare genetic disease called porphyria may have actually started the bizarre tales concerning “creatures of the night” and not just the easily excitable minds of Middle Age peasantry.

Scientific and medical knowledge was highly limited during the Middle Ages and thus the effects of porphyria could have easily been misconstrued as something of a supernatural nature. Patients with porphyria are extremely sensitive to sunlight and thus may rarely go outside. If they do dare wander outside, the Sun may cause terrible disfigurements to the patient’s hands, feet, or face. In worst case scenarios, their face may seem mutilated or distorted. Their noses, ears, or lips could recede or fall off, and excessive hair growth may occur, making them seem like a wolf or an animal (hence the werewolf myth, another popular tale during the Middle Ages).

Porphyria can also cause erythrodontia (the red discoloration of teeth) as well as receding gums that could have created the illusion of fangs. As for garlic (we all know those blood-suckers hate it), its consumption results in the worsening of porphyria symptoms and might actually inflict pain and cause the patient to become sick.

Today, porphyria is sometimes treated with the injection of a blood product called “heme.” Of course, treatment like that did not exist in the Middle Ages so if we get a little creative with our imaginations, victims might have been instinctively seeking heme by biting human victims and drinking their blood. Brothers and sisters could have unknowingly shared the defective gene that caused porphyria, so a victim of the disease biting their sibling for blood might have triggered an attack of the disease in the bitten sibling, creating a new “vampire” (hence the myth that a vampire’s bite resulted in the victim becoming a vampire as well).

3Ulcers Caused By Stress


Photo credit: C.T. Newcombe

William Brinton was one of the first few doctors to describe a stomach ulcer in 1857, but the lack of diagnostic tools made ulcer detection incredibly difficult. As well as that, no causative agent of ulcers could be found, and no single associated germ existed. Thus, doctors worldwide turned to the study of psychic and environmental factors to explain the appearance of ulcers. Eventually, it was agreed that poor diet, smoking, and stress caused high acid levels and so were the cause of ulcers. Doctors Arvey Rogers and Donna Hoel even wrote that “a peptic ulcer used to be a badge of success. Up-and-coming professionals were expected to earn one, and if they didn’t maybe they weren’t working and worrying hard enough.” The medical advice dispensed by doctors worldwide was to take antacids and modify your lifestyle.

However, patients with serious ulcer problems fell so ill that they had to have their stomachs removed and sometimes bled until they died. Shocked by all this atrocity, a physician named Barry Marshall and a pathologist named Robin Warren began working together in 1981, determined to get to the bottom of what really caused ulcers. Two years earlier, Warren discovered that the gut could be overrun by bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. Through biopsying ulcer patients and culturing organisms in the lab, Marshall traced ulcers (and stomach cancer) to this gut infection. The cure was antibiotics.

The world stayed skeptical until Marshall (who was unable to make his study with mice and who was not allowed to experiment on people) drank the Helicobacter pylori himself. Within days, he developed gastritis, the precursor to an ulcer. He felt sick and exhausted and started to vomit. Back in the lab, he biopsied his own gut, culturing the Helicobacter pylori and proving to the whole world that it was not stress but bacteria that was the cause of ulcers.

2Autism Caused By The Lack Of Maternal Warmth


The syndrome of autism was first identified by a child psychiatrist, Leo Kanner, in a 1943 paper. However, he went further than simply describing the schizophrenia-like features of children by focusing profoundly on their parents and their role in contributing to the syndrome.

Kanner had observed a small sampling of children from educated families and concluded that the parents of autistic children tended to be highly intelligent but at the same time coldhearted and formal. He claimed that autistic children were raised in isolation with no warmth emanating from their mothers or fathers. In fact, he went as far as to say that the parents of autistic children were “just happening to defrost enough to produce a child.” Kanner was not the only one to blame the parents. Numerous other psychoanalysts and child development specialists such as Bruno Bettelheim stressed the role of the parents in causing autism which gave rise to the “refrigerator mother” theory. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, “refrigerator mothers” (and fathers) not only had to deal with their autistic children but also had to bear the guilt of turning them autistic in the first place.

In early 1960s, however, the refrigerator theory came under fire as parents of autistic children began to fight back. Kanner eventually abandoned his original position, although other specialists such as Bruno Bettelheim continued to defend it. The bizarre refrigerator theory was mostly abandoned in the 1970s, but small numbers of its supporters are still scattered across Europe and places such as South Korea to this day.

1Birth Defects Caused By Maternal Impressions


Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis

According to the theory of maternal impressions, any fears, desires or strong emotions a woman experiences during her pregnancy months could have a significant effects on her child’s physical appearance. This theory was extremely popular in the 18th century and was often used to explain birth defects. Thus, if a child was born deaf, for example, this was the result of the mother having been shocked by a loud sound during her pregnancy. As a consequence, it was advised that pregnant women exposed themselves solely to pleasant stimulation and were advised to visit galleries and concerts to ensure that their child was cultured and healthy.

However, the theory of maternal impressions was not confined to the 18th century only and in fact goes back centuries. In ancient Greece, the Greek physician Galen believed that if a pregnant woman looked at an image of someone, her child could resemble that individual. So the practice of looking at statutes the mother admired was encouraged to produce attractive children.

It was also believed that a pregnant woman’s mental state not only caused vascular birthmarks but also influence their shape and location. Thus, if a woman craved or ate a lot of strawberries during her pregnancy, she could have a child who had a birthmark that resembled a strawberry.

The maternal impressions theory thrived through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the 18th century. It was eventually challenged by the physician and anatomist William Hunter in mid-18th century, but most people still believed that maternal impressions had an impact on infants and thus this rather bizarre theory continued right into the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century, however, the maternal impressions theory was dismissed completely.

Laura is a student from Ireland in love with books, writing, coffee, and cats.

fact checked by Jamie Frater