Syndrome K: The Fake Disease That Fooled the Nazis and Saved Lives

As thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Italy were being sent to concentration camps in the fall of 1943, a group of dissident doctors figured out a way to save dozens of lives: Fabricate a disease so contagious and so deadly that Nazi soldiers would be too scared to even be in the same room as anyone infected by it.

Though their actions wouldn't be revealed until 60 years later, the ruse began on October 16, 1943, when Nazis raided a Jewish ghetto near Rome's Tiber River. As Jews were being rounded up, the doctors hid a number of runaways inside the walls of the nearby Fatebenefratelli Hospital. It was then that the doctors, including Vittorio Sacerdoti and a surgeon named Giovanni Borromeo, came up with a plan to diagnose the refugees with a fictitious disease. They called it Syndrome K.

To pull it off just right, the Nazis had to believe these patients had a lethal disease that could infect anyone who came into contact with them. In the cramped quarters of deportation trains, one sick passenger could infect everyone on board—soldiers included.

The name Syndrome K came from Dr. Adriano Ossicini, an anti-Fascist physician working at the hospital who knew they needed a way for the staff to differentiate which people were actually patients and which were Jews in hiding. Inventing a fake disease cut out all the confusion—when a doctor came in with a "Syndrome K" patient, everyone working there knew which steps to take. “Syndrome K was put on patient papers to indicate that the sick person wasn’t sick at all, but Jewish,” Ossicini told Italian newspaper La Stampa in 2016. “We created those papers for Jewish people as if they were ordinary patients, and in the moment when we had to say what disease they suffered? It was Syndrome K, meaning ‘I am admitting a Jew,’ as if he or she were ill, but they were all healthy ... The idea to call it Syndrome K, like Kesselring or Kappler, was mine.”

The "Kesselring" Ossicini was referring to was Albert Kesselring, the Nazi commander who, among other things, was in charge of Hitler's Italian occupation; meanwhile, Herbert Kappler was the SS chief responsible for a mass reprisal killing in 1944. Naming a deadly contagion after two ruthless Nazi commanders must have felt fitting for Ossicini and the other doctors at the hospital.

Syndrome K wasn't just a pet name to distinguish actual patients from Jews in hiding; the doctors had to find ways to make the disease seem real when Nazi troops combed the hospital for people to round up. To do so, the doctors would have special rooms filled with "victims" of Syndrome K (also called "K" Syndrome), which they warned the soldiers was a highly contagious, disfiguring, and deadly disease.

The Nazi troops, scared of contracting the mysterious ailment, wouldn't even bother to inspect the people in the rooms when they raided the hospital. There were also children to worry about, so the doctors coached them on how to cough violently enough to ward off any inspections that a curious soldier may want to conduct.

"[The] Nazis thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they fled like rabbits," Dr. Sacerdoti told the BBC in 2004. Syndrome K hit close to home for Sacerdoti, who used the disease to save his 10-year-old cousin, Luciana Sacerdoti.

When, more than a half-century later, the doctors' fabrication was finally revealed, they became recognized for their life-saving actions. Borromeo was recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem, a World Holocaust Remembrance Center. He was also integral in orchestrating the transfer of many Jewish patients from hospitals in the ghettos to Fatebenefratelli in order to get them better treatment in a safer environment before the raids began.

The hospital itself was even recognized as a "House of Life" by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, which advocates on behalf of Holocaust saviors. In the years leading up to the raids, the hospital had become known as a haven for persecuted Jews. The hospital administration at the time, including Borromeo, allowed doctors like Sacerdoti—a Jew who had been fired from previous jobs because of his religion—to work under false documents.

The actual number of people saved by the doctors at Fatebenefratelli was probably around a couple dozen. No matter the final tally, though, the quick thinking and ingenuity of doctors like Sacerdoti, Borromeo, and Ossicini were a glimmer of hope during a time when happy endings were in short supply.

7 Terrifying Historical Remedies for Migraine Headaches

George Marks/Getty Images
George Marks/Getty Images

Migraines are more than just splitting headaches. Migraine symptoms, which affect about one in seven people worldwide, can include throbbing pain on one side of the head, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and visual disturbances called auras. Today, several classes of drugs are prescribed to either prevent migraine headaches from happening or halt them once they’ve started. But in previous centuries, migraine treatments weren’t so convenient—or effective.

1. Bloodletting

Whether by scalpel or by leeches, bloodletting was the most common remedy for migraine headaches (and many other ailments) before the advent of modern medicine. Throughout most of history, Western physicians subscribed to the humoral theory, in which human health was governed by four fluids (humors) that must be kept in balance. Sickness was explained as an imbalance of humors, and bloodletting was thought to rebalance the system. The methods varied, though. In the case of migraine headaches, the Greek physician Aretaeus suggested sticking a barbed goose feather up the unfortunate patient’s nose and prodding around until blood flowed.

Even as late as the 18th century, bloodletting was still believed to help migraines. Swiss physician Samuel Auguste Tissot, who was the first to describe migraines as a discrete medical condition in the 1770s, recommended bleeding, better hygiene and diet, and drugs including infusions of orange leaves and valerian.

2. Garlic

The 11th-century physician Abu al-Qasim suggested sticking a clove of garlic into the migraine headache sufferer’s temple. He offered a handy recipe:

“Take a garlic; peel and cut at both extremities. Make an incision with a large scalpel in the temple and keep under the skin a cavity wide enough to introduce the garlic and to conceal it completely. Apply compresses and tighten, let it remain about 15 hours, then remove the device. Extract the garlic, leave the wound for two or three days, then apply cotton soaked in butter until it suppurates.”

Once the wound started oozing—which was considered a good sign—the physician would cauterize the incision with a hot iron. Cauterization was meant to prevent infection, although modern research has shown that it actually lowers the threshold for bacterial infections.

3. Cupping

Cupping—inverting hot glass vessels on the patients’ body—was thought to perform the same function as bloodletting. Prominent Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp, depicted in Rembrandt’s 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, treated a migraine sufferer by cupping. She soon recovered.

A substance called cantharidin, a potent blistering agent secreted by the Meloidae family of beetles, was also applied as part of the cupping and blistering process to draw out bad humors. Unfortunately, if the cantharidin was left on too long, it could be absorbed into the body and cause painful urination, gastrointestinal and renal dysfunction, and organ failure. (Perhaps unrelatedly, cantharidin was also used as an aphrodisiac.)

4. Trepanation

One of the oldest types of surgery, trepanation is the practice of cutting away part of the cranium and exposing brain tissue to treat injuries or chronic conditions like migraine headaches. The 16th-century Dutch physician Petrus Forestus, who meticulously recorded the ailments and treatments of his patients, performed trepanation on a person with incurable migraines. In the brain tissue he found something he called a “black worm.” According to a 2010 study by neurologist Peter J. Koehler, the mass may have been a chronic subdural hematoma—a collection of blood between the surface of the brain and its outermost covering—and a possible cause of the patient’s agony.

5. Dead Moles

Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal, the leading ophthalmologist of the medieval Muslim world, described more than 130 eye diseases and treatments in his groundbreaking monograph Tadhkirat al-kaḥḥālīn (The Notebook of the Oculists). While his descriptions of ocular anatomy were sound, he also touched on remedies for headaches, and here his prescriptions seem more suspect. To treat migraines, he suggested tying a dead mole to one’s head.

6. Electric Fish

Long before scientists fully understood the principles of electricity, ancient doctors recommended it as a remedy for migraines. Scribonius Largus, the court physician for the Roman emperor Claudius, saw that the torpedo fish—also known as the electric ray, native to the Mediterranean Sea among other areas—had the power to shock anyone who touched it. Largus and other doctors prescribed the shocks as cures for headache, gout, and prolapsed anus.

In the mid-18th century, a Dutch journal reported that the electric eel, found in South America, emitted even stronger shocks than the Mediterranean fish and were used for head pain. One observer wrote that headache sufferers “put one of their hands on their head and the other on the fish, and thereby will be helped immediately, without exception.”

7. Mud Foot-Baths

Compared to expired rodents, warm foot-baths must have sounded positively decadent to those afflicted with extreme pain. Nineteenth-century physicians suggested that migraine sufferers take the waters at Marienbad (now Mariánské Lázně) and Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary), two spa towns in what is now the Czech Republic. While the mineral waters were useful for alleviating congestive headaches, mud foot-baths were believed to draw blood toward the feet and away from the head, calming the nervous system. “The foot-bath ought not to be taken too hot, and the feet should be rubbed one over the other while washing the mud off, and afterwards with a coarse towel. A brisk walk may be used to keep up the circulation,” suggested Prussian Army physician Apollinaris Victor Jagielski, M.D. in 1873.

Who Stole My Cheese? Archivists Are Cataloging 200 Years of Criminal Records From the Isle of Ely

Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons
Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

And you thought your parents were strict. In 16th century England, the same courts that tried murderers were also tasked with getting to the bottom of cheese thefts.

As The Guardian reports, archivists from the University of Cambridge have begun cataloging close to 270 court documents from the Isle of Ely, a historic region of England known for its magnificent, gothic-style cathedral as well as being the home of Oliver Cromwell for more than a decade (Cromwell was appointed governor of the isle in 1643).

Some of the documents, which are dated from 1557 to 1775, relate to matters that may seem macabre—or even ridiculous—in the modern world. But they offer a keen insight into the area's past. "This project enables us to hear the voices of people from all backgrounds ... long dead and forgotten, and for whom there is no other surviving record," archivist Sian Collins told The Guardian.

One such person was yeoman John Webbe, who was charged with defamation by one William Tyler after Tyler's wife, Joan, overheard Webbe tell someone that: "Tyler thy husband is a knave, a rascall & a thief for he stole my goodes thefyshely [thievishly] in the night."

Then there was poor William Sturns, whose only crime was a hunger that led him to steal three cheeses; ultimately, he was deemed not guilty. "Unfortunately we don’t know what type of cheese it was," Collins told Atlas Obscura. "But cheesemaking was fairly common in the area at the time."

Not all of Ely's court cases were about backtalk and dairy products, though. The university’s website details how in 1577, Margaret Cotte was accused of using witchcraft to kill Martha Johnson, the daughter of a local blacksmith. Margaret was eventually found not guilty, which is part of what makes this project so important.

"Martha and Margaret may not appear in any other records," Collins said. "This is all we know about them."

[h/t The Guardian]

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