Historical Names of Diseases and Conditions

Antique pharmacy bottles
Matt Davis/Moment/Getty Images

In the past, medical illnesses were often described based on their symptoms or their most obviously observable effects. You may hear family members describe their own medical conditions using terms that are no longer recognizable or in common use.

A number of common medical terms have gone out of style, often in favor of more descriptive and accurate medical terms. But the "old," often colorful names still persist, and you may even come across them if you like to read historical books or older fictional stories.

The Development of Formal Disease Names

With advancing medical knowledge and standardization of medical education worldwide, healthcare professionals are familiar with formal terms for medical illnesses, and many do not even recognize disease names of a past era. In the medical setting, you are more likely to hear the formal name of your medical conditions than you are to hear a casual name.

In recent years, disease names are often based on a description of their underlying biological process, or they may be named after the doctor who discovered important features of the disease—in other words, who "discovered" the disease.

A good example of that is leprosy. 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. The bacterium that causes the infection is called Mycobacterium leprae.

Some illnesses and medical conditions go by names that echo that of a particular infectious microorganism that researchers have discovered as the underlying cause of the illness. What was once known as the grip is now called influenza (or informally, the flu), after the virus that causes it.

Other misnamed diseases are not old diseases at all. Consider swine flu, H1NI virus, an infection which has nothing at all to do with pigs.

Outdated Disease Names

There's no question that outdated disease names are interesting. What was once popularly known as French pox is now referred to as syphilis, for instance.

Here is a list of outdated terms for diseases and conditions, along with their more current names.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, this bit of medical trivia could come in handy.

  • Ablepsy: blindness
  • Ague: flu-like symptoms likely caused by malaria
  • Apoplexy: stroke
  • Barrel fever: alcoholism
  • Biliousness: jaundice
  • Black dog: depression 
  • Blood poisoning: sepsis or septicemia
  • 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
  • Double personality: manic depressive
  • Falling sickness: epilepsy
  • French pox: syphilis
  • Frigid: Low sex drive
  • Green sickness or green fever: anemia
  • Grip, gripe or grippe: flu
  • Idiot savant: Developmentally delayed and exceptionally talented, often inaccurately referred to as autistic
  • Jail fever: typhus
  • Leprosy: Hanson's disease
  • Lumbago: back pain
  • Mad cow: Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Melancholia: severe depression
  • Mortification: gangrene
  • Palsy: problems with muscle control, such as tremors or paralysis
  • Quincy or Quinsy: tonsillitis
  • Retarded: developmentally or cognitively delayed
  • Scrumpox: impetigo
  • Ship fever: typhus
  • St Vitus dance: involuntary jerking movements now referred to as chorea. Huntington's disease is an example
  • Swine flu: H1N1 virus
  • Change of life: puberty or menopause
  • The shakes: Parkinson's Disease
  • Winter fever: pneumonia
  • Went under: had anesthesia

A Word From Verywell

As medicine is advancing, so is the terminology. Some local descriptions of medical conditions might not make sense outside of a small geographic region. But formal descriptions help in communication when it comes to medical illnesses. While many outdated names have interesting characteristics, the contemporary names assigned to specific illnesses, medical conditions, and psychiatric disorders are more accurate and scientific.

Nevertheless, you may encounter a friend or relative who tells you about their illness using what is now considered an outdated term, and familiarity with the term can help you understand and empathize with what they are going through.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources