Historical Names of Diseases and Conditions

From dropsy to the grip: modern terms for outdated diagnoses

Antique pharmacy bottles
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If you're a reader of historical fiction or biographies, a fan of Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, and other 19th century novelists, or you have a fascination with cemeteries, obituaries, and medical lore, you've likely come across names of diseases and conditions that sound odd, foreign, or even just plain made-up: consumption, for example, or jail fever. Or how about "black dog," which was how Winston Churchill, who was believed to have suffered from bipolar disorder (which itself was once called manic-depression), referred to periods of ​depression.

In most cases, diseases that once went by such often-colorful names are now known by ones that are more formal and more familiar. For instance, some illnesses and medical conditions go by names that echo that of a particular microbe researchers have discovered are the underlying cause of them. For example, what was once known as the grip is now called influenza (or informally, the flu), after the virus that causes it.

Other diseases are named after a doctor or scientist who made inroads into understanding a particular set of symptoms—in other words, who "discovered" the disease. A good example of that is leprosy. Now this highly contagious disease and disfiguring bacterial infection is known as Hansen's disease, after a doctor from Norway, Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen, who discovered the microbe that causes it in 1873. (For the record, that bacterium is now called Mycobacterium leprae.) Fortunately, Hansen's disease has been nearly eliminated as a public health problem throughout the world.

Outdated Disease Names

There's no question that overall, the contemporary names assigned to specific illnesses, medical conditions, and psychiatric disorders may be more accurate and scientific, but they're hardly as colorful or romantic sounding: What was once popularly known as French pox is now referred to as syphilis, for instance. Here are more outdated terms for diseases and conditions, along with their more current names. You may not need to know these in your everyday life, but the next time you pick up a copy of Poe's poetry, say, this bit of medical trivia could come in handy.

  • Ablepsy: blindness
  • Ague: flu-like symptoms likely caused by malaria 
  • Apoplexy: stroke
  • Barrel fever: alcoholism (probably)
  • Biliousness: jaundice
  • Black dog: depression 
  • Breakbone: dengue fever
  • Bronze John: yellow fever
  • Camp fever: typhus
  • Chalkstones: swelling with pain that probably was caused by rheumatoid arthritis or gout
  • Congestive fever: malaria
  • Consumption: tuberculosis
  • Domestic malady: depression or another sort of emotional breakdown
  • Dropsy: swelling caused by fluid retention
  • Dropsy of the brain: encephalitis
  • Falling sickness: epilepsy
  • French pox: syphilis
  • Green sickness or green fever: anemia
  • Grip, gripe or grippe: flu
  • Jail fever: typhus
  • Leprosy: Hanson's disease
  • Melancholia: severe depression
  • Mortification: gangrene
  • Palsy: problems with muscle control, such as tremors or paralysis
  • Quincy or Quinsy: tonsillitis
  • Scrumpox: impetigo
  • Ship fever: typhus
  • St Vitus dance: involuntary jerking movements now referred to as chorea. Huntington's disease is an example
  • Winter fever: pneumonia
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