JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF MEDICINE: Volume 91 June (1998)
Of all the legendary and fantastic diseases of ancient times, phthiriasis, or the lousy (lisease, wvas the most intriguing and bizarre. In the corrupted humours of the sufferers of this disease, lice were believed to develop by spontaneous generation, and tumours full of these insects rose on the skin. When such a louse tumour burst or was incised, a stream of insects swarmed out. The flesh of the sufferer wvas slowly caten away and transubstantiated into lice, and he perished miserably in this ‘most horrible of diseases’. Another singular charactcristic for phthiriasis was that it was firmly believed to be a divine punishment to tyrants, desecrators and enemics of religion.
PHTHIRIASIS IN ANTIQUITY
The annals of phthiriasis stretch far back into time. One of the earliest descriptions of the disease was given by Aristotle in his History of Animals: lice were produced from the flesh of the human body, and gathered in small eruptions on the skin. When these eruptions werc opened, a mass of lice emerged, but no purulent fluid. About 100 years later, in 240 BC, the geographer and historian Antigonos Carystius described a similar disease: lice were formed in the flesh, and when the insect-filled nodules under the skin were opened, they swarmed out.