Forget COVID, Here’s Other Diseases History Got Wrong 

    Marko Aliaksandr /
    Marko Aliaksandr /

    While it’s now generally accepted that COVID-19 was released from a lab in China onto an unprepared world, that was not always the case. The world was told that the virus originated from infected bats at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China.  

    Throughout history, the origin of diseases has baffled mankind and opened the doors to some pretty questionable treatments. 

    Tuberculosis, historically known as “consumption,” is a respiratory disease that, like COVID-19, spreads through the air. It swept the world as cities became more populous, and physicians thought it was caused by sorrow over industrialization. Because the deep grief they felt over pollution and overcrowding was “consuming them,” a little trip to the countryside would fix them right up. 

    Cancer has been an unfortunate part of human history, predating Hippocrates. Because it was forbidden to examine a body after death in Greece, physicians couldn’t research the disease and were left with guesses. Hippocrates believed in the existence of four humours within the human body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. He associated cancer with an imbalance or corruption of these humours, considering it a result of “bad humours.” Bloodletting and laxatives were the preferred treatment for cancer in ancient Greece. 

    In the 1400s, it was thought that women spread syphilis, particularly those labeled as “women of ill repute.” Treatment involved ingesting or injecting mercury, but in the mid-19th century, some thought that a syphilis vaccine could be developed. To test that theory, physicians deliberately infected syphilis on hospitalized prostitutes in the hope of developing immunity. 

    In antiquity, leprosy was believed to be a punishment from God or an inherited trait. Some physicians believed that amputating the body part could cure the disease, but those affected were mostly sent to a “sanitarium” or exiled to what would be called “leper colonies.” 

    However, epilepsy is arguably one of the diseases that baffled physicians the most before its origins were fully understood. Historically, people with epilepsy were considered to be possessed by demons, a belief that took root as far back as ancient Rome and Greece. Early treatments for epileptics in Rome were to have the patient eat corpses and drink the blood of fallen gladiators. That may have been preferable to the other option, trepanation.  

    As the dust settles, COVID-19 may be the next medical footnote for its origin story, vaccine mandates, and amazing ability to divide a nation.