Ancient origins of four modern diseases

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published August 25, 2021

Key Takeaways

Modern medicine is nothing like its ancient counterpart. In fact, it has transformed into practically a separate discipline.

“The 20th century produced such a plethora of discoveries and advances that in some ways the face of medicine changed out of all recognition,” wrote Britannica. “The rapid progress of medicine in this era was reinforced by enormous improvements in communication between scientists throughout the world. Through publications, conferences, and—later—computers and electronic media, they freely exchanged ideas and reported on their endeavours. No longer was it common for an individual to work in isolation.”

Today, teamwork characterizes medicine due to increased specialization. Individual accomplishments are rarer and discoveries harder to link to just one person. In the ancient world, however, individual medical scholars were the norm. And their ancient wisdom surely has much to teach today's physicians. 

Meanwhile, let’s take a look at four conditions as described by medical scholars from eras past.


Diabetes dates well into antiquity. Ancient scholars, however, were confused by the disease due to limited knowledge of anatomy and pathophysiology, as well as a lack of diagnostic tools. 

“Ancient Egyptians, Indians, Chinese, and Arabs tried to describe the clinical signs and symptoms of diabetes mellitus,” wrote the authors of a review published in the World Journal of Diabetes. “However, few are the main protagonists in the history of diabetes mellitus who contributed significantly, not only to its diagnosis and treatment but also to the development of our current notions on the disease, paving the way for further study and establishing a new medical subspecialty, diabetology.”

In 1500 BC, for example, passages from the Ebers papyrus detailed patients dealing with excessive thirst and voluminous urination. These patients were treated with plant extracts. 

In the 5th century BC, the noted Indian surgeon Sushruta identified diabetes as madhumeha, which translates to “honey-like urine.” He wrote that the urine was sticky, sweet, and attracted ants—descriptions that imply that he examined the urine very intimately. He also noted that diabetes tended to affect people in rich castes who ate excessive amounts of rice, cereals, and sweets.

Chang Chung-Ching, who lived between 160 and 219 CE and is nicknamed the “Chinese Hippocrates” noted that the disease was characterized by polyuria, polydipsia, and weight loss. Later Chinese scholars also noted that the disease resulted in sweet urine, and recommended abstinence from wine, salt, and sex as treatment.

From the 8th century onward, physicians reported that diabetic patients developed skin infections such as furuncles and rodent ulcers, as well as vision problems. In the 11th century AD, the Muslim physician Avicenna mentioned gangrene and sexual dysfunction as complications in his seminal work El-Kanun (ie, Canon of Medicine). In the years following, the medieval Jewish scholar Moises Maimonides built on the description of diabetes by pointing out symptoms of acidosis.


In 2640 BCE, the Egyptians first termed the condition podagra, now more widely recognized as gout. They identified it as affecting the metatarsophalangeal joint.

Like diabetes, many early scholars noted that gout often burdened the rich. This perception endured well into modern times. Hippocrates called the disease “arthritis of the rich” in the 5th century, according to information provided by the Arthritis National Research Foundation. He also referred to it as the “unwalkable” disease and linked it to the intake of rich foods and alcohol.

Intriguingly in centuries past, gout’s association with wealth and power has resulted in major political and social consequences. For instance, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was known for gluttony, developed gout in 1528. As the gout grew worse, severe joint inflammation resulted in disability that rendered him unable to lead his forces into battle. His inability to take necessary military action led him to relinquish his oversight of the military and abdicate the throne.

In another example, the British statesman William Pitt the Elder missed a session of Parliament in 1773. His absence opened the door to other members of Parliament to levy a hefty tax on tea imports from the American colonies. This bitterly opposed tax resulted in the “Boston Tea Party,” which served as a prelude to the American Revolution. In other words, an argument could be made that we owe the creation of the United States to an acute gout attack!


Whereas diabetes and gout were perceived as conditions of the affluent in the Ancient world, syphilis has affected all social strata.

According to the authors of a review published in the Journal of Medicine and Life, “From the very beginning, syphilis has been a stigmatized, disgraceful disease; each country whose population was affected by the infection blamed the neighboring (and sometimes enemy) countries for the outbreak. So, the inhabitants of today’s Italy, Germany and United Kingdom named syphilis ‘the French disease’, the French named it ‘the Neapolitan disease’, the Russians assigned the name of ‘Polish disease’, the Polish called it ‘the German disease’, the Danish, the Portuguese and the inhabitants of Northern Africa named it ‘the Spanish/Castilian disease’ and the Turks coined the term ‘Christian disease’. Moreover, in Northern India, the Muslims blamed the Hindu for the outbreak of the affliction. However, the Hindu blamed the Muslims and in the end everyone blamed the Europeans.”

Intriguingly, syphilis’ origin story is highly debated. Some scholars hypothesize that around 3000 BCE, a sexually transmitted form emerged from southwestern Asia. This emergence was due to lower temperatures during the post-glacial era. The disease then spread to Europe and the rest of the world, in the process evolving from a mild to severe disease.

Other scholars suggest that the disease was brought back from the Americas by Columbus (ie, the “Columbian hypothesis”). According to accounts supporting this hypothesis, physicians present at Columbus’ return reported the emergence of a new disease first present in European sailors and previously unrecognized in the Old World. This disease, however, was known to the indigenous people who returned with Columbus.

In the 16th century, a Parisian teacher named Jean Fernelius suggested treating the condition with mercury. He called it lues venera or “venereal pest.” Around the same time, the poet and medical figure Girolamo Fracastoro from Verona wrote an allegory of the disease in 1530, which gave the disease its modern name: Syphilis sive Morbus Gallicus. In the work, Syphilis, who was a shepherd of King Alcihtous, a character from Greek mythology, grew mad at Apollo for parching the trees and drying the springs that sustained Syphilis’ flocks. He swore not to worship Apollo but rather the king. Apollo, in turn, cursed the people with a terrible disease that was named after the protagonist. This disease spread to the population and the king.


This disease has been a scourge of humankind for a long time, according to the author of a review published in Emerging Infectious Disease. “Cholera has been an unwanted companion among human civilizations for at least a millennium, with suggestions that it has existed in India ‘since immemorial times.’ Its impact in Bengal society was sufficient to have resulted in recognition of a goddess of cholera, Oladevi (or Oola Beebee), who required propitiation to protect villages from the disease.”

Cholera went worldwide in 1817 in what was later recognized as the first pandemic. During the next two centuries, there have been six additional pandemics. In fact, the third pandemic, which occurred in London in 1854, inspired John Snow to perform his novel work in epidemiology. Snow came up with the idea of removing the communal pump handle at a local water source, which famously curbed infection rates. 

Finally, here's a related "fun fact": Did you know that copper was considered a cure-all in ancient times? Click here to read about it on MDLinx.

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