Ailments, Complaints, and Diseases in the 1700 and 1800s

Common ailments, complaints, and diseases were a mystery in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Physicians were often baffled and did not have a clear understanding of microorganisms or how diseases were transmitted. They believed in the longstanding central principle of Western medicine, known as the Humoral theory, which believed in balancing the four humors—blood (sanguine), black bile (melancholic), yellow bile (choleric), and phlegm (phlegmatic). Among the ways to balance the four humors was bloodletting, which was thought to cure everything from acne to diabetes to indigestion and from nosebleed to scurvy. Unorthodox methods, such as bloodletting, however, often failed. This led to an investigation of other methods to “cure” patients, which eventually resulted in the germ theory that revolutionized medicine.

ailments, complaints, and diseases

Bloodletting. Public domain.

To help you understand the diseases people faced in the 1700 and 1800s, here is a list, in alphabetical order, of the more common diseases, ailments, and complaints.

AGUE was a type of malarial fever. It was usually characterized by regular intervals of chills, sweating, and fever, and depending on these intervals, sufferers were said to have quartan ague, quintan ague, quotidian ague, or tertian ague. AGUE was also known as chill fever, the shakes, Panama fever, or swamp fever.

BILIOUSNESS was a liver disease characterized by gastric pain and an undue amount of bile brought on by disorders of the liver or gallbladder.

BILIOUS FEVER was a term “loosely” applied to a patient that suffered from any fever, along with nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea and was thought to arise from disorders of the bile.

BOILS, also known as furuncle, are painful, bumpy, red-pus filled skin abscesses usually caused by bacteria, such as staphylococci. However, physicians of the 1700 and 1800s did not understand staphylococci were the cause of these eruptions. Egyptians used moldy bread to rid themselves of these bumps, and, during Medieval times, boils were feared because they were a sign of the Black Plague. Between 1840 and 1850 a severe furuncle epidemic, which may have been a mild case of the plague, occurred in Europe, America, and South Africa and resulted in some people dying.

CANCRUM OTIS was a destructive ulcer that could erode the cheek, lips, tongue, palate, or face and was often fatal. It was prevalent in children between the ages of two and five and was caused by poor hygiene and poor nutrition. It sometimes led to gangrene, often resulted in irreversible damage, and could be swift moving, wreaking havoc within a few days.

CATARRH was a disorder or inflammation of the mucous membranes in a body cavity or in the airways. There were several forms of this disease: bronchial catarrh was bronchitis, epidemic catarrh was influenza, suffocative catarrh was croup, urethral catarrh was gleet, and vaginal catarrh was leukorrhea.

CHOLERA is an acute, infectious disease characterized by cramps, watery diarrhea, and vomiting that is spread by feces contaminated food and water. However, as late as the 1850s, people thought it attacked the poor and that it was caused by vapors, whether they be pestilence vapors or putrid animal miasma. They also did not believe it was contagious and thought it entered the body through clothing or the lungs. It was a nightmare disease at the time because railways and steamships spread it everywhere. There were six pandemics in the 1800s: The first started in India in 1817 and spread to Asia, the Middle East, and Russia; the next began in 1827 affecting the United State and Europe; a third pandemic occurred in 1839 in North Africa and reached South America; another pandemic in 1863 affected sub-Saharan Africa; and a fifth (1881-1896) and sixth (1899-1923) pandemic affected people worldwide. The famous French socialite Madame Récamier was one victim of cholera.

Ailments, Complaints, and Diseases - Cholera Preventative Costume, Public Domain

“Cholera Preventative Costume.”  Public domain.

CHOLERA INFANTUM was not a true form of CHOLERA but rather a noncontagious acute intestinal disturbance that affected young children primarily in the summer or autumn months and in areas of high humidity and temperature. During the nineteenth century, it was thought to be indigenous to the United States. There were also several names used for CHOLERA INFANTUM, such as choleric fever of children, summer complaint, water gripes, or weaning brash.

CONSUMPTION is the archaic name for pulmonary tuberculosis, which in many cases was lethal and involved a “wasting away” of the body. It was also sometimes referred to as phthisis or mistaken for MARASMUS — severe malnutrition that caused an infant or child to look emaciated. One cure for consumption from the 1800s involved a concoction of equal proportions of rum and boiled milk, sweetened with loaf sugar.

CONVULSIVE VAPORS was a combination of melanchoy and hysteria. The Princesse de Lamballe was stricken with this illness, which at the time, was “considered such a scourge that the medical community, as well as charlatans, conducted extensive experiments hoping to cure them.”[1] It was reported that the Princess was so stricken violets made her ill, she lay faint for several hours, and fits were brought on by pictures of lobsters or crawfish.

Princesse de Lamballe. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

CROUP was a form of CATARRH triggered by an acute viral infection with symptoms of “barking” that often worsened at night. The name for the disease was first used in Scotland and popularized in the 1700s.

DENGUE FEVER is a viral disease transmitted by several mosquito species and first recognized in the late 1770s. Although DENGUE FEVER has a red rash like measles and a much lower mortality rate than YELLOW FEVER in the 1700s it was often mistaken for YELLOW FEVER. To learn more about this disease, click here.

DIPHTHERIA was known by different names across the world before 1826. For instance, in England, it was known as Boulogne sour throat, because it spread from France. DIPHTHERIA is a contagious upper respiratory tract illness characterized by a sore throat and low fever. It is fatal in adults 5 to 10% of the time and fatal in children as much as 20% of the time. Princess Alice (daughter to Queen Victoria) and her family became infected with it, and Princess Alice and her youngest daughter died. In the 1800s, people sometimes confused it with SCARLATINA or CROUP.

DROPSY is an abnormal accumulation of fluids in the body and a contraction from the word hydropsy, which is now known as edema. Other names for DROPSY were ascites or anasarca.

DYSENTERY, formerly known as the bloody flux or flux, is an inflammation of the intestines with symptoms of severe diarrhea, accompanied by mucous and bloody stools along with fever and abdominal pain. Notable victims of this disease include, Henry V of England, Sir Francis Drake, and Napoleon Bonaparte‘s Grande Armée in Russia.

Henry V, Author's Collection

Henry V. Author’s collection.

EFFLUVIUM referred to unpleasant, foul-smelling gaseous odors that in the nineteenth century that were thought to be injurious or cause disease.

EFFLUVIUM arose from a myriad of things, such as rotting animals, decaying plants, or noxious factories, and to avoid it, people were counseled to not breathe “bad air.” The idea of odors causing disease, however, was put to rest once the germ theory emerged.

FEMALE HYSTERIA, also known as the “vapors,” was a catch-all complaint in the 1800s that one physician claimed was suffered by a quarter of all women. Women diagnosed with it suffered a wide array of symptoms from irritability and insomnia to fainting and fluid retention. The cause for this hysteria was unknown, although speculation was it involved the retention of female semen, which was thought to mingle with male semen during intercourse. Water massage of the genitalia was one treatment for this condition.

A FEVER was also known as pyrexia, and although not a disease, according to one late nineteenth century doctor, many physicians thought of FEVER as “a symptom representing a number of very different conditions. Fevers are distinct disease caused by contagion … [with some physicians going] as far as to say that feverish states are also caused by poisons, as well as the fevers, the difference being that the microbes — or whatever the poison is — are made in the body.”[2]

Historically, GOUT was called “the disease of kings” or “rich man’s disease” as it tended to be more common among the elite and well-to-do and today is known to be caused by high levels of uric acid in the blood that crystallize in the joints, tendons, or surrounding tissues, resulting in severe pain. One famous sufferer of this disease was Benjamin Franklin who wrote a lengthy dialogue between himself and the vicious disease asking “Eh! Oh! Eh! What have I done to merit these cruel sufferings?”[3]

Benjamin Franklin. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

JAUNDICE, sometimes called icterus, is often seen in liver disease or hepatitis and is a yellow discoloration of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. A Scottish physician in the early 1800s was the first to link jaundice to cirrhosis of the liver. Bloodletting was the usual treatment for this disease.

LOCKJAW acquired this nickname because the jaws locked firmly together. We know it today as trismus — a pathological condition where the mouth is held shut by sustained jaw muscle spasms — or tetanus, an infectious disease of the central nervous system. In the 1800s, one of the most common cases of LOCKJAW was lost fingers caused when factory workers injured themselves while cleaning, maintaining, or operating a machine.

MARASMUS was severe malnutrition that caused an infant or child to look emaciated and waste away. In the nineteenth century, the causes of MARASMUS, which is taken from the Greek word meaning decay, were associated with age. Infants with MARASMUS under a year were believed to have acquired it because of chronic vomiting and diarrhea, inherited syphilis, or unsuitable food. Between the ages of one and three it was associated with rickets or cancer, and after three an enlargement of the mesentery glands were thought to be the cause. From age six onward, it was believed to be chronic pulmonary tuberculosis. Now we know it is caused by a severe protein deficiency.

MILK SICKNESS was not a disease but rather a poisoning caused by drinking milk from a cow that ingested white snake root. However, it was original thought that “flesh from animals suffering from ‘trembles,’ is believed to give rise to ‘milk sickness.'”[4] MILK SICKNESS killed thousands of people in both Europe and America. Frontier areas along the Ohio River in the United States, where white snake root was prevalent, were particularly plagued by MILK SICKNESS. The cause was not known until the early 1800s when an American frontier doctor named Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby (called Dr. Anna) was told about the plant’s properties by a Shawnee woman. Dr. Anna investigated and discovered the cause. One notable victim of this disease was Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hank Lincoln.

PILES was a popular name for inflamed hemorrhoids. Horse chestnut extract was used by the French in the 1800s and was apparently effective in solving the problem.

PLEURISY is an inflammation of the pleura, which is the membranous sac that lines the chest cavity, sometimes with a collection of fluid in the cavity. Notable deaths from this condition were Benjamin Franklin, William Wordsworth, and the wife of King William IV of the United Kingdom, Adelaide of Sax-Meiningen.

William Wordsworth, Author's Collection

William Wordsworth. Author’s collection.

PNEUMONIA, also known as winter fever in the 1800s, is an inflammation of the lungs, accompanied by fever, pain in the side, rapid breathing, serrated pulse, a cough, and in some cases rapid death. Its symptoms were described as early as the Middle Ages and are similar to the descriptions of today. The first physician to observe bacteria in the airways occurred in 1875, and, by 1884, two bacterial causes were identified. Interestingly, one of these tests from the 1800s is still used to identify PNEUMONIA today. We have also discovered since the 1800s that PNEUMONIA can be caused by a virus, occasionally by microorganisms, certain drugs, and autoimmune diseases.

PUERPERAL FEVER was also known as child bed fever and was a dreaded consequence of childbirth and motherhood in the 1700 and 1800s. Cases of it exploded once “lying-in” hospitals became popular in Europe in the 1600s. It affected women with severe and acute symptoms, such as abdominal pain and fever and many women and newborns died from it. To learn more about PUERPERAL FEVER, click here.

PUTRID SORE THROAT, also known as putrid fever, was an acute gangrenous inflammation of the fauces and pharynx that attacked the tonsils and then caused sloughing near the pharynx. There is no modern classification for this disease. However, there appears to be an overlapping of symptoms between measles, SCARLANTINA, and PUTRID SORE THROAT, although the disease seems to be aligned more closely with bronchitis, laryngitis, or tonsillitis.

QUINSY or QUINSEY was another name for a complication related to tonsillitis that affected children and adults. It was an accumulation of pus beside the tonsil with symptoms of throat pain, difficulty swallowing, earache, neck pain, and headaches. If left untreated it developed into throat abscesses, inflammation of the chest, or sepsis.

RHEUMATIC FEVER. This was a complication from strep throat and was most prevalent in children. It was so named because of its similarity to rheumatism, but RHEUMATIC FEVER is much more dangerous. If untreated it can lead to permanent heart damage. In the mid-1800s, many physicians believed that God grew herbs in locals were certain diseases naturally occurred. A Reverend Edmund Stone decided to try willow bark on some patients who were suffering with RHEUMATIC FEVER and rheumatism. Unwittingly, Stone selected the right herb as the active ingredient in willow bark is salicin and that is what chemists later used to create salicylate, which became known as aspirin and proved an effective and useful remedy for RHEUMATIC FEVER.

SCARLATINA is an old-fashioned name for scarlet fever. It was a contagious disease caused by a bacterial infection known as Group A Streptococcus, which is the cause of “strep throat.” SCARLATINA is characterized by tonsillitis, pharyngitis, and a bright red, distinctive rash that looks like a sunburn with bumps. There were devastating epidemics in England and Wales in the mid-1800s that killed hundreds of people. Apparently, the epidemics coincided with dry conditions in spring and summer. This resulted in less wheat for market and an increase in prices, which has led some researchers to believe malnutrition during pregnancy caused increased susceptibility. Scarlet fever has been used several times in literature as a plot device, and among the writers whose characters have succumbed to the disease are Mary Shelley’s character Caroline Beaufort, who was Victor Frankenstein’s mother in Frankenstein, and American writer Louisa May Alcott’s character Beth in Little Women. In real life, Caroline Matilda of Great Britain, the titular queen of Denmark, died from it in 1775.

Louisa May Alcott, Author's Collection

Louisa May Alcott. Author’s collection.

SCROFULA, also known as the “King’s Evil,” is a skin disease with usual signs and symptoms being a chronic, painless mass in the neck, which is persistent and usually grows with time. The disease originated during the time of Edward the Confessor and was believed to be cured by the King’s touch. From 1633 onward a ceremony was conducted for this, and it became a tradition for the monarch to present to the touched person a valuable gold coin. This practice continued until the early 1700s. Reports indicate that King Henry IV of France perhaps healed as many as 1,500 and Queen Anne touched the infant Samuel Johnson. In the 1700s, an Irish herbalist, Elizabeth Pearson, created an herbal poultice and vegetable extract that was advocated as cure and presented to the House of Commons. Englishman John Morley also wrote an Essay on the Nature and Cure of Scrophulous Disorders, Commonly Called the King’s Evil, with the forty-second edition being printed in 1824.

SEPSIS was not given a name until the end of the nineteenth century. At that time, it was widely believed microbes produced substances that could harm mammalian hosts and that soluble toxins released during infection caused the fever and shock that was commonplace with this indescribable affliction.

During the Crusades, soldiers reported suffering from some mysterious ailment that Jean de Joinville described as a disorder that “soon increased so much in the army … barbers were forced to cut away very large pieces of flesh from the gums to enable their patients to eat.”[5] What the soldiers suffered from became known as SCURVY. It seemed to be a medical mystery even into the mid-1700s when the mystery was solved by a British naval physician named James Lind. To learn about scurvy, click here.

The Latin term for SMALLPOX was variola as varius means spotted and varus means pimple. The English simply called it pox or the red plague. However, in the 1400s, they began referring to it as SMALLPOX to distinguish it from syphilis, which was known as the great pox. The disease is localized in the small blood vessels of the skin and in the mouth and throat and is characterized by a rash that later becomes fluid-filled blisters. It can cause scars (usually on the face), blindness, and limb deformities.

As early as the 1500s, Gabriele Falloppio wrote a treatise about SYPHILIS, which is a sexually transmitted venereal disease. Falloppio also proved condoms could prevent it. However, not everyone was willing to use them. Until the 1800s, SYPHILIS was known by many names, including bad blood, the great pox, or the most common name the “French Disease.” If you interested in knowing the history of condoms, click here.

THRUSH is a fungal infection characterized by white spots on the mouth and tongue. It is caused by a parasitic fungus, known as Candida albicans, and usually affects the sick, the weak, and infants or the elderly. In the 1800s it was also called aphthae, aphthous stomatitis, or sore mouth.

TYPHOID FEVER is infectious and often fatal. This disease is transmitted through poor hygiene habits and unsanitary conditions. It usually occurs during the summer months and is acquired by ingesting food or water contaminated with feces of an infected person. Symptoms include abdominal pain, fever, delirium, malaise, and skin rash. One of the most notorious carriers of this disease was Mary Mallon, also known as Typhoid Mary. She was a cook in New York, the first American carrier identified, and deemed responsible for infecting at least fifty-three people and killing three. Fortunately, an effective vaccine was developed in 1897 by the British bacteriologist Almroth Edward Wright.

Common Ailments, Complaints, and Diseases  - Mary Mallon, Better Known as Typhoid Mary

Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary. Public domain.

TYPHUS was known by many names, including brain fever, bilious fever, camp fever, jail fever, malignant fever, petechial fever, putrid fever, ship fever, and spotted fever. It is an acute, infectious disease and one of the diseases caused by Rickettsia bacteria, micro-organisms transmitted by lice and fleas. It is characterized by delirium, depression, headache, high fever, joint pain, and red eruptions on the body. Its lethality was shown during Napoleon Bonaparte’s retreat from Moscow in 1812, as more French soldiers died from TYPHUS than were killed by the Russians. Several other major outbreaks are detailed below:

  • Outbreak between 1816 and 1819 in Ireland
  • Another outbreak when the Great Irish Famine occurred, which then spread to England and was called the “Irish Fever”
  • Several outbreaks in the United States, one in 1837, another in 1843, and several between 1865 and 1873, including many Civil War soldiers dying from “camp fever”
  • Outbreak in Canada in 1847 that killed more than 20,000 people, mainly immigrants that contracted it aboard “coffin ships”

WHOOPING COUGH was named for the sound made when someone coughed and just as the name sounds, people whooped when they coughed. It was first identified in the 1500s and became a lethal disease after 1700. It is highly contagious and caused by Bordetella pertussis, which is why it is called pertussis today. It begins as a mild cough and then develops into severe coughing fits, producing the distinctive high-pitched “whoop.” It usually last about six weeks before it subsides. One nineteenth century cure involved a combination of rum and spirits of turpentine, which was rubbed on the sufferer morning and night.

Historically known as yellow jack, YELLOW FEVER is an acute viral hemorrhagic disease. It is transmitted by the bite of female mosquitoes, and in earlier times was often lethal. Symptoms include anorexia, chills, fever, headache, muscle pain with prominent back pain, and nausea. Although it was thought to be a “tropical” disease, outbreaks occurred in New York in 1688, Philadelphia in 1793, and New Orleans in 1833 and 1853. There were also other outbreaks: Gibraltar in 1804; Barcelona in 1821; and numerous outbreaks in southern Europe, particularly in Spain.


  • [1] Walton, Geri, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante, 2016, p. 21.
  • [2] The Delineator, Volume 51, 1858, p. 358.
  • [3] The Monthly Magazine, Volume 18, Issue 2, 1804, p. 101.
  • [4] Quain, Richard, ed., A Dictionary of Medicine, 1894, p. 514.
  • [5] Chronicles of the Crusades, 1888, p. 435.

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  1. Beth Simmons on February 3, 2021 at 7:25 pm

    There is a reference in Jeremy Belknap’s History of New Hampshire from the town of Dover that refers to “Children in the Month” – 37 children died from it in a short period of time. from 1767-1786. Do you happen to know what we would call the disease? Could it be Cholera infantum?

  2. Ann Moffatt on April 12, 2021 at 4:26 am

    my ancestor died from phohisis diarrhoea. The writing ion the death certificate is quite hard to read so the spelling may be incorrect. Please could you tell me what this would be called today? Thank you

    • Geri Walton on November 29, 2021 at 9:35 am

      Do you mean phthisis, which is a wasting disease, especially pulmonary tuberculosis?

  3. John Brunner on March 18, 2022 at 5:03 pm

    I have done ancestral research in Europe and encounter many infant deaths due to what is called in German “fraisen” and translates as “convulsions”. It turns up quite often in the death records. What causes this? Thank you.

  4. ItIsAlwaysSomething on April 1, 2022 at 9:51 pm

    Excellent writing! 2014 – glad I found it in 2022. I had 7 neighbors, survivors from the camps. Two of the women told me they had typhus. I was never sure if it was typhoid fever or maybe they just had it wrong. They did tell me their sweaters were filled in the seams and button holes etc with fleas. They were sent to Switzerland from the camps to recover before going back to their country – which was Greece.
    Now I understand it completely. Thank you very much.

  5. FAITH Stern on June 28, 2023 at 5:15 am

    In 1774 a woman died at age 64 of Guhlfuss or Gahlfuss. Do you know what this disease might be. I’m thinking it might be a swollen foot, because of the fuss part of the word, but really don’t know. The woman’s name was Anna Barbara Haehn. Thanks. Excellent article

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