Time off work, weight loss, the rotting flesh of your enemies – whatever illness means to you, it’s always been with us, railing against the dream of living, if not forever, then at least for longer. As climate change begins to grip, New Testament visions of apocalypse are resurfacing. Perhaps if our afflictions are to have the last laugh, this will come in the form of a wasted and blasted landscape in which nothing but Cormac McCarthy exists. Until then, here’s a look at some of the finest ailments known to humankind.
This skin disease was known as the “king’s evil,” as it was believed that the touch of the monarch would relieve the suffering of the patient. Edward the Confessor was said to have received this healing gift from Saint Remigius, who in turn learnt it from an old crow. The healing ceremony was incorporated into the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in 1633, an act that would, almost four centuries later, provide Richard Dawkins with hours and hours of scornful fun. But those who don’t believe in the Jesus-like ability of unelected, inbred monarchs should be aware that Henry IV cured almost 1,500 patients by simply touching them. Of course, the practice of giving these same patients gold coins as an extra treat probably didn’t hurt when it came to filling in the customary follow-up survey. That and the threat of being burnt at the stake. When the practice of using the king’s touch to cure was brought to an end, it wasn’t because it was deemed ridiculous, it was because it was deemed “too Catholic.”
Munchausen by proxy syndrome
The other day I was feeling a little down so I gave my four-year-old son a good thrashing, took him to the hospital and told the doctors he'd been attacked by my indentured Filipino house slave. They were all so nice and kind to me, I really felt like the center of attention--it made me feel so good. So a couple of weeks later I took my son back to the hospital and told the doctors he'd been vomiting in his sleep. They were all really worried, ran a bunch of tests and kept him in for observation. And guess what? They really took care of me as well.
My surname is Rickett, so once people at my school heard about the disease, fun was had at the expense of my vitamin D-less name. "Hey Rickett, you getting your recommended daily amount of vitamin D?" they'd say. "You getting enough sun?" "Your bones are looking pretty brittle, you sure you can stand up properly?" "Oi, dickhead, why don't you and your bow legs fuck off and find some vitamin D?" Ah, limitless nostalgia...
Smallpox is the grand old dame of diseases. Recorded as early as 1122 BC in China, it raped 18th century Europe and ravaged the native populations of North America. The English used to give blankets smeared with the disease to Native Americans during the French and Indian wars of the 18th Century. You already know this. Within a week of contracting the disease, small spots begin to develop and a rash covers the face. This rash hardens and turns into painful blisters that fall off after a few weeks, leaving scars. Stalin’s face was scarred in this way so when he had his photo taken he would get the photographer to re-touch it so the scars weren’t visible. He really was the model dictator, at the forefront of vanity photography. It's kind of appropriate, then, that for many years the Soviet Union developed smallpox in secret laboratories with a view to spreading it through large American cities. Still, in 1980, the World Health Organization announced that the disease had been eradicated, the only infectious human disease of its kind to have been. In your face, smallpox!
Remember this one? The World Health Organization contained it, did they? Listen, I’m presently suffering with fever, myalgia, lethargy, and a whole host of gastro-intestinal problems. I got some shortness of breath going on, a temperature too. I’m telling you, it looks like the SARS.
A neurological disorder usually caused by stroke, Wernicke’s aphasia basically leaves you unable to process meaning or deal with verbal communication in a regular way. This is because the left hemisphere of the brain has been fucked over. Left hemisphere = verbal communication. So patients end up having conversations like this:
Examiner: I’ll say the name of each object here, and you can go ahead and say the name after me. OK? Toothbrush.
Like the nicotine-hungry invalids they obviously are, patients always seem to get cigarettes right. But, aside from that, words are lost. Toothbrushes become “rockstreams,” combs become “wongts,” and tables become “wolthrushes.” Lewis Carroll was no doubt obsessed with them.
We’ve all looked at dogs and foxes going about their business and thought, “They look pretty calm, but is there drool on the edge of their mouth? Is that froth? Are they growling at me? Could any of this behavior be construed as ‘mania’”? Deep inside, we are all living in To Kill a Mockingbird, hoping and praying that Atticus will take down the rabid dog lurching towards us from down the street.
Just like AIDS, no one knew or cared about Ebola when it was just another disease killing anonymous Africans and the odd missionary. Once it was discovered in Reston, Virginia in 1989, suddenly everyone was worried. The nightmares of western children were then full of dark hands creeping out of Africa, whispering “Ebola” over and over again as they enveloped their sleeping victims in a fatal quilt of disease. But then the panic subsided and it began to feature in disturbing but kind of amusing sub-plots; in 1992, for example, a Japanese cult went to Zaire to “help” the victims of the virus. In fact, they were going to bring the virus back home in order to develop it as a biological weapon. Predictably, nothing much seemed to come of that.
Ever wondered why you have a fear of being beaten by a rod, severely punished, and magic? Well, wonder no more. You have Rhabdophobia. You fear the coming of a rod-wielding David Blaine, the appearance of a judgmental Derren Brown, or a sadistic clown with a crowbar. These things make you sweat, hyperventilate, and panic. Your only treatment option is hypnotherapy. But surely the people who practice this dark art are magicians? This is a catch-22 situation that is worse than a terrible, shaming rod beating.
The black death, the death star, the pestilence. Whatever you call it, bubonic plague holds a unique place in the British conscience. That's largely down to the fact that our education system is totally obsessed with it. I'm pretty sure I remember spending a whole year doing endless projects and case studies on the plagues of 1348 and 1665. These mainly involved drawing pictures of those strange, crow-faced, cloak-wearing doctors and talking about how if you had an "X" daubed over your door, you were a goner. Still, a disease that was so relentlessly fatal (50 per cent of those infected die within a week if untreated) was always bound to be thought of as a good way of instilling empire-building fear in young children. When the Soviet Union's biological weapons program was hastily disbanded, there was a mysterious outbreak of plague in Kazakhstan. But this was before Borat, so no one really paid any attention to it.