5 Diseases & Disorders With Very Strange Histories

The strange, convoluted history of diseases and disorders is one of the best bits of medicine; you don't really appreciate how far we've come with breast cancer, for example, until you know that it first turned up in ancient Eygptian medical papyri as an illness without a cure, and that in 1811 the writer Frances Burney described the incredible agony of having a mastectomy with no anaesthetic. Often it's a pretty simple narrative: from ignorance to understanding, from darkness into (partial) light. But there are some human health issues that have added rather interesting (and, I must warn you, pretty disgusting) chapters to their histories. Everything from tuberculosis to PTSD and the common cold has veered wildly away from the normal at some point in its story.

A lot of medical history comes from advantageous mistakes. The first antidepressant was discovered by accident, when scientists in the 1950s discovered that the tuberculosis cure they were testing gave all their patients a massive mood boost; and we all know the origins of penicillin, which grew purely by chance on a petri dish of staph bacteria while Alexander Fleming was on a summer holiday in 1928. But some diseases and disorders have histories a good deal weirder than a fortuitous moment in the lab. We've got camels, kings, and decaying flesh — and that's only scratching the surface.

Here are five diseases and disorders with exceptionally weird histories.

1. Part Of The Common Cold Originated In Camels

It turns out that you can blame at least one type of the sniffles on the humped wonders of the desert. Yep: camels are the origins of one of the subtypes of common cold. The discovery made headlines this week when the German Center for Infection Research published it, but it's not absolutely accurate to blame the entirety of the world's cold issues on camel-kind. It turns out that colds are caused by a vast diversity of viruses, with the most common being rhinoviruses (responsible for up to 40 percent of colds) and the runner-up being coronaviruses (likely to blame for around 20 percent). There are four main types of cold-causing coronaviruses, and it's one of those that's been traced directly back to camel-human transmission.

The German scientists found the coronavirus in question, HCoV-229E, in a large proportion of the 1,000 camels studied — which was a surprise, because they were looking for insight into another type of virus altogether, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which is another camel-based problem. And they discovered that the coronavirus is easily capable of transmitting to humans, making it likely that the first human to catch it got it directly from the camel's mouth, as it were. Cue high likelihood of "hump" puns.

2. Tuberculosis Was Thought To Be Cured By The King's Touch

Tuberculosis, or TB, is one of the most ancient diseases for which we have evidence. A now-famous scientific paper in 1997 found molecular evidence of Pott's disease, or spinal TB, in a mummy from ancient Egypt's New Kingdom, around 1550–1080 BC. And in 2009, a mummy whose cause of death had puzzled archaeologists ever since it was autopsied in 1825 (by the hilariously named Augustus Granville) was finally diagnosed with lung inflammations caused by TB. Dr. Granville's mummy, as it was called, didn't exactly have an easy time of it; there was also evidence that she suffered malaria and a tumor of the ovaries.

Its most spectacular moment in the limelight, though, was in medieval England and France, where the physical symptoms of tuberculosis were known as "scrofula" or "the king's evil," and were thought to be cured only by a direct skin-to-skin touch from the king himself. Royal personages were called upon to touch a huge amount of very sick people, and to transfer their holy touch via medallions or coins to desperate citizens. Obviously, this didn't work, but all in a day's work for a king.

3. Smallpox Inoculation Caught On Because Of A Determined English Noblewoman

If you did anything on smallpox in school, you'll know that it was the British scientist Edward Jenner who discovered the idea of vaccination for it; but before that, a practice called inoculation, where an uninfected person was poked in the arm or leg with a surgical knife that had just touched the pustule of an infected one, was the only way to escape it. But inoculation as a practice only spread to Europe because of the persistence and imagination of the English noblewoman Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the 1700s.

Montague, the wife of a diplomat, witnessed inoculation being performed widely in Istanbul, both in the court and by peasant women. Montagu, having seen that children who'd been inoculated were extremely unlikely to grow up and contract the disfiguring disease (which she'd had herself), had both her sons and daughter inoculated, the latter in the presence of the entire Royal Court back in England. The physician who did the inoculating, Charles Maitland, was then allowed to test the procedure on six prisoners in Newgate Prison, all of whom survived, and eventually to do two of the daughters of the Princess of Wales, who became immune. From there, it became widely accepted until Jenner came along a century later. It's worth noting that Montagu actually had the first of the inoculations to her sons in Turkey done in secret; her husband wasn't told about it until a week later. Pretty baller.

4. Doctors In 19th Century England Thought Cholera Was Spread By Smelly Air

Cholera is still one of the most deadly infectious diseases present in human civilization; the World Health Organization estimates that over 140,000 people still die of it yearly. And we're now familiar with the fact that it's spread through contaminated water supplies, hence the continuing problem with epidemics in cities and countries with poor sanitation. But in the 19th century, a debate raged in London about why people kept dying from the diseases, and the majority of doctors agreed that it was probably caused by "miasma": what was basically "bad air," caused by the stink of decaying things like foodstuffs.

We now know this is absolute nonsense, but it held such sway at the time that one of the most groundbreaking disease studies in history, by doctor John Snow, that proved it wrong was completely discounted. Snow did a serious study of the increase in cholera cases surrounding a well in Soho, London, and determined that it was actually built several feet above a cesspit and that the water itself was likely responsible for causing the epidemic. Official opinion utterly ignored this proof for over 10 years, until it slowly made its way into the mainstream with the increasing popularity of germ theory.

5. PTSD Was Seen As "Male Hysteria"

The first real evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, emerged after World War I, at the time the greatest and most brutal conflict in recent history. It was initially thought to be somehow directly related to the explosions of shells, hence the description "shell shock;" but while treatment and understanding gradually evolved, various countries, Germany and England in particular, were not particularly sympathetic to their PTSD-suffering veterans. Many wondered if it was cowardice, and separated them from the "actually ill;" one English doctor, having lulled his patient into an anesthetized nap, yelled "GERMAN SHELLS" in his ear to see what would happen. He did not react well, unsurprisingly.

Historian Paul Lerner, in Hysterical Men: War, Psychiatry and the Politics of Trauma In Germany, explains that the German treatment of PTSD-suffering veterans of the period was also extremely harsh. They were usually diagnosed with male "hysteria," a vague neurotic condition normally attributed to women's weak nerves. The veterans would be punished for their apparent weakness with everything from ice-cold baths to severe electric shocks, and isolated completely from their families until they showed "improvement". Makes you wonder what treatment we'll realize is crazy next.

Images: Aloys Zotl, Wellcome Images, Phillipi Reinhard, Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library/Wikimedia Commons