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15 Historic Diseases that Competed with Bubonic Plague

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The Bills of Mortality (also called "London's Dreadful Visitation") recorded deaths in London. For the week of December 20–27, 1664, there were 291 deaths of various causes—including a very ominous one:

Confirmed death by Bubonic Plague: 1.

Throughout 1665, the Bills documented the horrific exponential growth of what would come to be called the Great Plague. By September 12–19, 1665, thousands were dying weekly:

Confirmed death by Bubonic Plague: 7165.

In light of the monstrosity of the 1665 Plague (caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis), which killed about 100,000 people—nearly a quarter of London's population—it's almost unseemly to notice that people were dying of other things. There's a terrible irony in having the immune system (or luck) to survive a deadly epidemic only to be killed by drowning or dehydration.

But die of other causes people did, and the ways they met their fate are compiled in the Bills of Mortality. Many are familiar enough (cough, fever, small pox), but many more either don’t exist anymore or are largely unrecognizable by their 17th-century names. Here is a look into the antiquated diseases that managed to kill even those the Plague couldn’t catch. 

1. “Winde”

Suffering winde seemed to be the polite way of saying your meal was mildly disagreeable to you. But it is listed throughout the Bills as a constant cause of death, which seems unlikely for flatulence. Winde more likely was used here in the same way we say, “he knocked the wind out of me,” meaning the patient died of constricted breathing. More specifically, winde is thought to be chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a condition usually caused by smoking. 

2. “Purples”

Purples presented exactly as you’d expect: purple blotches on the body. It was caused by the breaking of small blood vessels just under the skin. You didn’t die from the Purples, also called Purpura. You died from whichever of the many conditions were causing your blood vessels to weaken and burst, such as scurvy, or a blood or heart disorder. 

3. “Livergrown”

Again, a no-nonsense descriptive name for a condition. People who died of livergrown died with an enlarged (failing) liver. Doctors could diagnose it through the combination of other symptoms like jaundice and liver-located abdominal pain. It was commonly a result of alcoholism, but could be caused by any number of disorders.   

4. “Chrisomes”

Extremely high infant mortality was a miserable fact of life clear up to the 20th century (and still is in some parts of the world). The Bills distinguish abortive (miscarriages), stillborn, infant, and chrisome deaths, but they all amounted to much the same sad thing. Chrisomes were specifically children who died within the first month of life. The word itself refers to the white cloth a baby wore while it was baptized—a symbol of its innocence. A baptized baby was notable because it was assured a place in the heaven of both Catholic and early Protestant doctrine.  

5. “Rising of the Lights”

Back in the days when no part of a slaughtered animal was wasted, a pig’s lungs were likely to find their way into stew or sausage, just like any other organ. Compared to other organs, the lungs were very “light.” One horrible cough children suffered sounded like they were bringing up a lung, or “raising their lights.” In Scotland, the awful noise was reminiscent of a chicken sick with a barnyard disease called “roup." In the late 18th century, Scotland’s slang won out, and “rising of the lights” became “croup.” 

6. “Timpany”

The condition of having serious swelling or bloating (like a big tight drum) in the digestive tract is still called tympany today, except it is usually used in reference to cows. The sort of swelling that would have proven fatal to human could have been caused by kidney disease, intestinal infections, or even cancerous tumors. 

7. “Tissick”

If you’re a fan of etymology, you'll find a rich history in the word “tissick”, which originated in ancient Greek and persisted through Latin, French, and English for thousands of years only to end up a dead word. It derives from a word meaning “to decay.” Much like the also archaic term consumption, tissick described the wretched physical condition of a person who wasted away from tuberculosis

8. “Meagrome (Megrim)”

If you’re experiencing a migraine, it’s not uncommon for the pain to be located on one side of your head. That’s why the Latin word for it was hemicrania, or “half-head.” The French dropped the “h” sound and softened the “k” into ‘guh’. Any internal head trauma from an aneurysm to a brain tumor would be filed under Megrim, which soon became our familiar enemy, the migraine.

9. “Imposthume”

There seem to be clues lurking in the word imposthume, since it bears so many familiar parts. Posthumous? Imposter? Impose? None of them particularly call to mind what an imposthume was: a swelling or abscess, usually filled with pus or other putrescence. It originates with the Greek apostema, meaning “standing from,” or apart, such as how a swelling of unnatural fluid would be notably distinct from a healthy body. But that connection might be coincidence; the word went through, as the Oxford English Dictionary put it, “unusual corruption.” 

10. “Head mould shot”

Newborns, particularly ones that had a hard struggle down the birth canal, often have oddly shaped heads. This is because the bony plates that make up their skull haven’t fused, or “sutured” together yet. Head mould shot described a condition in which a newborn’s cranial bones were so compressed by delivery (the invention of obstetrical forceps still being 200 years away) that they overlapped (overshot) each other. They then fused in that position, ceasing to grow and causing often fatal brain pressure and convulsions. The condition still exists today, called craniosynostosis, though now it is highly treatable and is rarely caused by difficult births. 

11. “Quinsie”

Quinsy, which evolved from a Latin word meaning “choke,” is still sometimes used in modern England. It describes a complication of tonsillitis where an infection occurs between the tonsil and the throat. A pus-filled abscess grows, requiring antibiotics and sometimes surgery. Unless the abscess was removed, a patient would often suffocate from the blockage. 

12. “Surfeit”

Surfeit means “to overdo it.” In the case of the Bills of Mortality, it is hard to narrow down what sort of excess the writer is referring to. Sometimes, as in the case of King Henry I and his lampreys, it can refer to overeating a food that becomes poisonous if taken in large enough quantities. In veterinary studies it had described a horse which had too much water in its stomach. Though it was likely a rarity, considering the environment in 1664 London, it might have meant a person who died from an excess of food. 

13. “French Pox”

Wherever French troops fought a battle, a flare-up of syphilis always seemed to occur among soldiers on both sides. Thus the English (and many others) gave the disease this ignoble title. At the time, rudimentary treatments for syphilis involved injecting mercury into the afflicted area, but they were not reliable. Untreated syphilis could cause blindness, organ and nerve failure, necrosis of tissue, and death. 

14. “Bloody Flux”

Dysentery was common in crowded places without reliably clean water sources. To “flux” meant to “flow out”—which is what a person’s body tries to do with any threatening bacteria caught in the digestive tract. Bloody flux described a body so ill that its digestive tract was breaking down. Dehydration was usually the cause of death from dysentery. 

15. “Plannet”

“Plannet” is likely a shorthand for “planet-struck.” Today we might describe a person in a state of paralytic awe as “moonstruck,” but the 17th century didn’t limit their diseases to one celestial body. Many medical practitioners believed the planets influenced health and sanity (thus the "luna" in lunatic). A person who was planet-stricken had been suddenly maligned by the forces of particular planets. They would likely present symptoms also associated with aneurisms, strokes, and heart attacks.

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]

A New Analysis of Chopin's Heart Reveals the Cause of His Death

For years, experts and music lovers alike have speculated over what caused celebrated composer Frederic Chopin to die at the tragically young age of 39. Following a recent examination of his heart, Polish scientists have concluded that Chopin succumbed to tuberculosis, just as his death certificate states, according to The New York Times.

When Chopin died in 1849, his body was buried in Paris, where he had lived, while his heart was transported to his home city of Warsaw, Poland. Chopin—who appeared to have been ill with tuberculosis (TB)—was terrified of the prospect of being buried alive, and nostalgic for his national roots. He asked for his heart to be cut out, and his sister later smuggled it past foreign guards and into what is now Poland.

Preserved in alcohol—likely cognac—and stored in a crystal jar, Chopin's heart was laid to rest inside Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. (It was removed by the Germans in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising, and later returned.) But rumors began to swirl, as the same doctor tasked with removing the heart had also conducted an autopsy on the composer's body, according to the BBC.

The physician's original notes have been lost, but it's said he concluded that Chopin had died not from TB but from "a disease not previously encountered." This triggered some scholars to theorize that Chopin had died from cystic fibrosis, or even a form of emphysema, as the sickly musician suffered from chronic respiratory issues. Another suspected condition was mitral stenosis, or a narrowing of the heart valves.

Adhering to the wishes of a living relative, the Polish church and government have refused to let scientists conduct genetic tests on Chopin's heart. But over the years, teams have periodically checked up on the organ to ensure it remains in good condition, including once in 1945.

In 2014, a group of Chopin enthusiasts—including Polish scientists, religious officials, and members of the Chopin Institute, which researches and promotes Chopin's legacy—were given the go-ahead to hold a clandestine evening meeting at Holy Cross Church. There, they removed Chopin's heart from its perch inside a stone pillar to inspect it for the first time in nearly 70 years.

Fearing the jar's alcohol would evaporate, the group added hot wax to its seal and took more than 1000 photos of its contents. Pictures of the surreptitious evening procedure weren't publicly released, but were shown to the AP, which described Chopin's preserved heart as "an enlarged white lump."

It's unclear what prompted a follow-up investigation on Chopin's heart, or who allowed it, but an early version of an article in the American Journal of Medicine states that experts—who did not open the jar—have newly observed that the famed organ is "massively enlarged and floppy," with lesions and a white, frosted appearance. These observations have prompted them to diagnose the musician's cause of death as pericarditis, which is an inflammation of tissue around the heart. This likely stemmed from his tuberculosis, they said.

Some scientists might still clamor at the prospect of testing tissue samples of Chopin's heart. But Michael Witt of the Polish Academy of Sciences—who was involved in this latest examination—told The Guardian that it was unnecessary to disturb what many consider to be a symbol of national pride.

"Some people still want to open it in order to take tissue samples to do DNA tests to support their ideas that Chopin had some kind of genetic condition," Witt said. "That would be absolutely wrong. It could destroy the heart, and in any case, I am quite sure we now know what killed Chopin."

[h/t The New York Times]


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