Diseases and Historical Fiction, Part VI

(This is the final currently-planned installment of a series on common diseases and health conditions which were common in the era before vaccines, antibiotics, penicillin, and modern medicine. It’s important to be familiar with them, to give extra authenticity and flavour to your historical novels.)

Tuberculosis (TB, consumption, scrofula, the White Plague, phthisis, Pott’s disease), a bacterial infection in the lungs, which used to be a very common cause of hospitalisation and death. It can be diagnosed by a chest X-ray (often done without protective lead vests in the old days), skin tests, and blood tests. Symptoms include a cough, fever, night sweats, weight loss, and blood in one’s spit. While today many people contract TB due to HIV or AIDS, historically it was often caused by overcrowding and malnutrition, hence its prevalence in slums, tenements, and the poor side of town.

It’s been with us since antiquity, but only became epidemic in Europe around the 17th century, when it was known as the Great White Plague. In the 19th century, it was actually considered a romantic, spiritual disease. Though a vaccine was introduced in humans in 1921 and gained popularity after WWII, antibiotics are the most common treatment now.

Syphilis, which probably needs no introduction. The first written records documenting it are from 1494-95 in Napoli (Naples), when it was called the French disease due to being spread by French soldiers during an invasion. The STD then swept across Europe, and was carried to the Americas by the Spanish. Each country called it by the name of its enemies or the people believed to have started it; e.g., the Dutch called it the Spanish disease, the French called it the Italian disease, the Russians called it the Polish disease, and the Tahitians called it the British disease.

It was also called great pox during the 16th century, to distinguish it from smallpox. Syphilitics were as ostracised as lepers, due to how their bodies were disfigured, in addition to the public knowledge that they’d gotten it from sex. A number of treatments were tried and developed over the centuries, until finally penicillin and antibiotics were introduced.

Streptococcus (strep), a bacterial infection that’s perhaps best-known for causing strep throat and Group B strep. I had strep throat many times in lower elementary school, and hated the throat cultures and medicine I had to drink. Until a few decades ago, many children had their tonsils taken out to avoid or treat it. Nowadays we have antibiotics and penicillin.

Group B strep is most common in pregnant women and their neonates. If antibiotics aren’t taken during birth, the neonate may be born with GBS, or have it develop after the first week. Early-onset GBS is a major cause of bacterial septicemia and may cause pneumonia, while late-onset GBS may cause meningitis.

Diabetes, one of the first diseases described, known since Ancient Egypt and India. It was commonly recognised by the sufferer’s sweet, sugary urine. In spite of how global and well-known this ailment is, effective treatments weren’t developed until artificial insulin came along in 1921. By then, people had gradually come to understand that the pancreas of a diabetic is insulin-deficient. And yes, diabetes is something you’re born with, or develop later in life due to obesity, pregnancy, poor health, aging, poor diet, and stress. Diabetes is not caused by vaccines. Anyone who believes it is does not understand basic scientific principles. 

Our understanding of diabetes has improved considerably since the first insulin treatments. I’m showing my age, but Stacey of The Babysitters’ Club wouldn’t have been written as a brittle diabetic were the books published today. She wasn’t allowed any sugar, and would practically go into a coma if she had even a little taste of sugar. I hate the trend of “updating” older youth literature, which the earliest BSC books fell victim to. They were written in the Eighties and Nineties. Having Stacey’s diabetes be depicted as if she’s a young person of the 21st century isn’t historically accurate.


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