A glossary of archaic ailments

The past was a dangerous time to be alive. If you were lucky enough to survive infancy and adolescence, you were very likely to die of any number of frightful diseases well before you reached what we regard as old age. Readers of old novels or historical death records are confronted with many unfamiliar names for these illnesses. I’m sure I am not the only person to read pre-1900 novels and think, what is brain fever? What’s the bloody flux? What on earth is pink disease? For the benefit of those readers, history students and any one else who is interested, I’ve compiled a brief glossary of medical terms which were once commonly used but are now rare or obsolete.


Ague: Any intermittent fever characterised by periods of chills, fevers and sweats
Apoplexy: Now refers to bleeding within internal organs, but historically meant a death which began with sudden loss of consciousness; covered what we now call heart attacks, strokes and aneurysms
Bilious fever: A fever accompanied by nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
Bloody flux: Dysentery
Brain fever: Difficult to make a diagnosis in hindsight, but possibly meningitis or encephalitis. Very popular as a plot device with 19th century novelists, who portrayed it as a reaction to a severe emotional shock.
Camp fever: Typhus; so-called because it was common in military camps with notoriously poor hygiene
Consumption: Pulmonary tuberculosis. Another popular illness in Victorian novels.
Corruption: General term for infection
Distemper: A disease, especially an infectious one
Dropsy: Edema – abnormal swelling of the body, often caused by kidney or heart disease
Dropsy of the brain: Encephalitis
Falling sickness: Epilepsy

St Severin of Noricum healing a woman with falling sickness, c.1300
St Severin of Noricum healing a woman with falling sickness, c.1300

Gaol (jail) fever: Typhus
Great pox: Syphilis. Became something of a political football; the English, Poles, Italians and Germans called syphilis the ‘French disease’, the French called it the ‘Italian disease’, the Dutch called it the ‘Spanish disease’, the Russians called it the ‘Polish disease’, and the Turks called it the ‘Christian disease’.
Green fever/green sickness: Anaemia
King’s evil: See Scrofula
Lung fever: Pneumonia
Malignant sore throat: Diptheria
Mania: Insanity
Megrim: Severe headache, often limited to one side of the head
Melancholia: Severe depression
Mortification: Gangrene
Pink disease: Disease of teething infants due to mercury poisoning from teething powders
Plague: Any infectious disease with a high mortality rate, though will often refer to bubonic plague
Pox: Syphilis, though also referred to any unknown disease which caused sores to appear on the body

Harlot's Progress 1732
A prostitute (far right) dying of syphilis. From Hogarth’s ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ (1732)

Putrid fever: Diptheria
Screws: Rheumatism
Scrivener’s palsy: Writer’s cramp
Scrofula: Primary tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands. Also known as the King’s Evil, due to the old belief that the monarch was able to cure scrofula victims. Sufferers would hang around the royal residence waiting for the king or queen to bless them.
Ship fever: Typhus
Spontaneous human combustion: The burning of  a living human body without an apparent external source of ignition. Features in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House where the alcoholic Mr Krook dies of it.
Spotted fever: Meningitis or typhus
St Anthony’s Fire: One of several conditions characterised by intense inflammation of the skin, such as from erysipelas or ergotism. Rife in the Middle Ages due to the eating of ergot-contaminated rye bread.

Mathis Grünewald's grisly depiction of a man suffering from St Anthony's Fire (1512-16)
Mathis Grünewald’s grisly depiction of a man suffering from St Anthony’s Fire (1512-16)

St Vitus’ Dance: Phenomenon in which groups of people danced in a frenzy until they collapsed from exhaustion. Thought to have been a mass pschyogenic illness.
Strangury: Condition marked by slow, painful urination, caused by muscular spasms of the urethra and bladder
Surfet/surfeit: Vomiting from over-eating
Swamp sickness: Malaria
Sweating sickness: Infectious and often fatal disease affecting England in the 15th century
Teeth: Death of an infant when teething; symptoms included fretfulnes, convulsions, diarrhoea, and painful and swollen gums. Children appear to have been more susceptible to infection during this time, although malnutrition from being fed watered milk has also been suggested as a cause.
Tympany: A swelling or tumour
Winter fever: Pneumonia
Worm fit: Convulsions associated with teething, worms, elevated temperature or diarrhoea

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