History has known many epidemics. Cholera, Typhus and the dreaded Black Death are but a few of the many plagues that have left their mark on the past. Yet if you delve further into the chronicles of pestilence you’ll quickly discover some of the most peculiar epidemics in human history. And by peculiar I do not mean a strange case of oddly shaped measles or a particularly virulent form of ringworm…
From mad nuns and villagers dancing to death to inexplicable hair growth and the fear of bodily shrinkage, read on to discover seven of the most peculiar epidemics in history.
1. Sleep Sickness Epidemic 1915 – 1928
The idea of individuals falling into a sleepy, almost comatose state, conjures up images of Sleeping Beauty, watching the new Top Gear hosted by Chris Evans or, failing that, city centres the length and breadth of the UK on a Friday night. However this often self induced sickness, pales in comparison to the sleeping sickness epidemic that spread across the world at the end of the First World War.
Coupled with the other great epidemic of the time, The Spanish Flu, the sleeping sickness proved to be, in many instances, lethal to human life. The sickness left its victims in a motionless, statue-like and unresponsive state. Its medical name was Encephalitis Lethargica, but it could equally have been called, ‘the final sleep’, because more often than not sufferers of the disease died, and even if they were fortunate to survive, they rarely made a full recovery.
Most of the survivors of the sleeping sickness were left with severe personality changes, motor disorders and mental health illnesses such as psychosis. The cause of the sickness is widely debated, however what is clear is that by 1928 the sickness fizzled out just as quickly as it had arrived in 1915.
2. The Deadly Dancing Epidemic 1518
In 1374 villages along the Rhine River were infected with a deadly plague – choreomania. In effect the villagers replicated those dodgy Top of The Pops audiences we have all tried to forget, by incessantly dancing to music no one else could hear. These strange individuals could be seen jerking, twisting and leaping for days on end without any need for eating or sleeping. In fact they danced until their bloodied feet could no longer support their bodies whereupon most subsequently died of exhaustion.
The strange sickness quickly disappeared but centuries later, in 1518, it reappeared with a vengeance in the city of Strasbourg. Once again poor innocent people were caught up in the bizarre urge to dance to a silent melody. However at this point in history, physicians felt that they had more of an understanding about how to treat the dancing affliction. In a bizarre parallel with BBC One show, ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, these early modern doctors suggested that in order to be cured, the victims should, “keep on dancing!”
As such musicians played tunes to try and encourage the dancers to stop, although, rather unsurprisingly, this had little to no effect.