The ancient world recognised both the plague and what we now call syphilis as “pestilence,” as both diseases moved quickly, overwhelmed populations with fatality and disfiguration, and confounded medical professionals whose humoural theories couldn’t seem to explain the diseases away. By the late 1400s, when Christopher Columbus and his crew of sailors purportedly brought syphilis (“The French Disease,” as it would later become known) to Europe, it became obvious that it was sexually transmitted. And soon enough, the powers that be decided that women spread the disease — specifically “women of ill repute,” or prostitutes.
While existing medical science indeed had a handle on the mode of transmission, social and institutional sexism continued to dictate that women stood at the source of all venereal disease, including syphilis. Well into the 20th century, in both Europe and the United States, this consensus played a huge role in how experts explained syphilis to the public, and how they proposed that the public combat such a disease. Indeed, experts urged female sex workers to “stay clean;” they did not advise the same to the men who sought their services.
The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, the father of medicine itself, suggested that cancer came from “bad humours.” The humours were the four foundational fluids of the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Too much black bile, Hippocrates mused, caused cancer. And with the practice of real medical science not an option, these explanations lasted for what today may seem to be a surprisingly long time. Indeed, cancer origin theories involving another bodily fluid, lymph, persisted through the 1700s. It should be noted, however, that the thought that bodily fluids could “go rogue” and cause cancer didn’t fall all that far off the mark.
Seizures allowed both legitimate and illegitimate medical “experts” to conflate epilepsy with demonic possession well into modernity. This conflation even predated the Bible, and may have originated with the Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans – all of whom ascribed religious significance to what we know now as seizure activity.