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7 Strange Illnesses and Epidemics That Plagued People in the Past

In the Middle Ages, lunacy was a mental condition thought to be connected to the lunar cycle.
IMAGE Wellcome Images/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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The human body works in many ways we have yet to completely comprehend. While doctors in the past were at a technological disadvantage when it came to treating their patients, they tried to give the best explanations they could for many illnesses. Here are some of the strangest ones.

OVARIAN INSANITY

Commonly associated with older women, ovarian insanity was coined in 1883, and was also known as “old maid’s insanity.” Women experiencing menopause were believed to be affected because as one doctor writes, “the death of the reproductive faculty is accompanied… by struggles which implicate every organ and every function of body.” One of the symptoms of “Ovarian Insanity” was that the “deluded” victim believed that the opposite sex was in love with her, as she pined for casual companionship, it’s noted in Madhouses, Mad-Doctors, and Madmen: The Social History of Psychiatry in the Victorian Era.

FEMALE HYSTERIA


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With a winding 4,000-year history, female hysteria was the world’s first mental disorder supposedly occurring only in women, as it was caused by “wandering wombs,” which moved in the body. What was believed to be widespread, female hysteria came with fainting, violent outbursts, anxiety, irritability, as well as sexual thoughts. A study notes that it was cured with herbs, sex, manual stimulation, or sexual abstinence. Medical professionals believed in hysteria until the 1950s.

DANCING PLAGUE OF 1518


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A mysterious force possessed Frau Troffea to take to the streets of Strasbourg and dance until she couldn’t dance anymore. After fainting from exhaustion, she continued dancing. Thirty more people caught the bug within a week’s time and overworked their bodies to the point of injury. By August, the next month, a whopping 400 people were counted in this dancing mania, and there were a few casualties, as some of the dancers died from strokes or heart attacks. By September, the dancing plague was dispelled abruptly. American historian John Waller reasoned that the occurrence was a mass psychogenic disorder due to stress or collective worries. At the time, famine had struck the land and locals were plagued with smallpox and syphilis, which might have triggered the stress.

BEATLEMANIA

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This one isn’t a regular illness like the rest on the list but in 1963, a frenzy struck the West (particularly its teenage girls), and its people became oddly obsessed with the British band The Beatles. The behavior might sound typical, especially to anyone who’s attended a concert, but Beatlemania was a worldwide phenomenon that had girls act rabid—screaming, crying, and fainting at the sight and sound of this four-piece musical group. Scientists have linked the behavior to the brain’s functions, as it “can elicit these vulnerable physical reactions” when struck with strong emotions, according to Business Insider.

TANGANYIKA LAUGHTER EPIDEMIC

In 1962, in the country now known as Tanzania, a strange epidemic befell the village of Kashasha. A group of students was first hit with fits of laughter, which was later caught by the entire school of girls. The laughter spread from students to teachers, and then to the parents. The Chicago Tribune reported that the epidemic that affected a thousand of the residents lasted somewhere around six months to a year and a half. Although the epidemic zeroed in on the giggles, it was only one of the symptoms of what was thought to be mass hysteria. Those who suffered from it had bursts of laughter or tears and would faint or get rashes. It’s now diagnosed as Mass Psychogenic Illness, which pinpoints a shared stress among the people as its main cause.

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SUPPRESSED GOUT


Supressed gout was an illness that doctors diagnosed quite often in the 19th century. Different from regular gout, suppressed gout was said to result from collected toxic substances that caused discomfort, a very general explanation given when doctors didn’t know what was going on.

LUNACY


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The term “lunatic” as we know it today is a synonym for crazy, but in the Middle Ages, it was a mental condition thought to have a strange (and unlikely) association with the moon—hence the root word “luna”—and its changes in tidal motions. Philosophers of old believed that the water in the brain was affected by the moon’s cycle, thus the myth that bizarre occurrences and behavioral changes accompany the full moon. Many of those allegedly inflicted with lunacy were women, as they were noted to have uncontrollable bursts of insanity.

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About The Author
Hannah Lazatin
Senior Staff Writer
Hannah is a communications graduate from Ateneo de Manila University. She’s originally from Pampanga and from a big, close-knit family who likes to find a reason to get together at the dinner table. Experiences inspire her. “Once, at a restaurant, I received an interpretation of my second name ‘Celina,’ and it meant 'someone who tries everything once' and that is me through and through,” she says. As for the job, she wants her “readers to be inspired by the stories of the people we feature and to move them to reach for greater things.”
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