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Antique and Obscure Words for Students in the History of Health and Medicine

The words we use reflect our society and come in and out of usage as our society changes. The words in these lists have largely faded out of current use but they fill the older publications.


rabbit catcher
Midwife (U.S. 19th cent.).

rabbit fever
Tularemia. Rabbits are an endemic reservoir for this disease.

Rabbit test 
A pregnancy test. The women’s urine would be injected into the ovaries of a young rabbit. If the rabbit's ovaries enlarged then the estrogen level indicated pregnancy. Technically, the Aschheim-Zondek test named after Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek who introduced the test in 1928.

An abnormal sound heard with a stethoscope against the chest accompanying normal breath sounds; esp. a crackling, bubbling sound (OED 1651).

radical measures
Extreme surgical procedures such as amputation of a limb which the patient might not survive given the lack of anesthetics and antibiotics to stop infection.

radium poisoning
When radium was newly discovered and its poisonousness was unknown, it was used in many ways. For example, watch dials were painted with radium paint so they would glow in the dark. The young women, who did this work, would shape the tips of their paint brushes for this delicate work with their lips and saliva. Their mouths, lips and teeth developed unhealing ulcers and they died slowly and in agony. Radium was also used in proprietary medicines. Marie Curie, the discovered of radium, died of leukemia caused by radium poisoning. Many early radiologists and x-ray technicians lost fingers and limbs and finally their lives to radiation poisoning.

ragsorter's disease
Also called anthrax, a disease of cattle and sheep. It can be transmitted to humans through the handling of diseases skins or fleeces, even long after they are removed. It can also be transmitted to humans through shaving brushes made of infected fibres.


1.A bad man.
2.A eunuch. A man with his testicles removed.

A recipe. "RX" on your prescription means 'recipe' from the time pharmacists created medicines from their own recipes, not just dispensed them as they do now.

rectified spirits of wine
Distilled alcohol.

red hot iron, cauterizing
Closing of blood vessels in a wound by the application of a very hot object.

red gum
A eruption or rash in infants during teething consisting of red pimples and patches around mouth and anywhere on the skin (OED  1571).

A systematic course of treatment.

To become ill after an apparent recovery.

relapsing fever
A fever that recurs; specifically an infectious disease characterized by a number of episodes of fever lasting for several days and separated by febrile intervals of similar length, caused by bacteria of the genus Borrelia and occurring in two major forms, one transmitted by lice and the other by ticks (OED 1828).

relaxed throat
A sore throat caused by over use of voice and smoking.

Abatement of the symptoms of a disease.

Abating for a while or at intervals and then returning, as a fever.

reopening wounds
In scurvy, the lack of ascorbic acid impairs the maintenance of intercellular ground substance and collagen in muscles and wounds re-open.

rest cure
A period spent in inactivity or leisure with the intention of improving one's physical or mental health. Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell became famous for his rest cure for women he considered hysterical. Virginia Woolfe endured one (OED 1860).

resurrection men
Persons employed by medical students or their instructor to steal newly dead bodies from their graves. These bodies were used to teach anatomy to the students. Grave robber. In Britain, until the Anatomy Act of 1832 authorized the use of unclaimed bodies for teaching purposes, the only corpses legally available were those of executed criminals.

rheumatic gout
Now called Arthritis. An ancient disease first described by Hippocrates. It originally referred to all joint diseases including gout and chronic rheumatism.

The rhubarb plant (not kitchen rhubarb but Rheum officinale) was used as a purgative.

rich face or rich nose
Red, pimpled face (U.S. 19th cent.).

rickets or rachitis
A nutrition disease associated with vitamin D deficiency beginning most often in children between 6 months and 2 years of age. Children with rickets often have trouble walking or are bow legged. It was a very common disorder among the urban poor (OED 1668).

Rigor mortis - the stiffening of the body after death.

Rigidity of a muscle (HMSS 72).

risus sardonicus
A fixed contraction of the facial muscles, caused by tetanus.

Strengthened, invigorative.

An idiot. His brains were damaged by overzealous rocking in his cradle (U.S. 19th cent).

rope burns 
Abrasions, particularly on the hands, caused by friction of ropes (TGS 149).

The rose
Fever and red skin. Also called St. Anthony's Fire.

rosey gills
A fresh complexion (U.S. 19th cent.).

Royal Society of London
The Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, is the oldest scientific society in Great Britain and one of the oldest in Europe, founded in 1660. By the 18th century, the achievements of the Royal Society were internationally famous. Its publication, Philosophical Transactions, begun in 1665, was one of the earliest periodicals in the West. Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley were members. In 1768, the society sponsored a the first scientific expedition to the Pacific, under James Cook, and in 1919 it sent an expedition to photograph the solar eclipse of May 29 from Principe Island in the Gulf of Guinea, which verified Einstein's general theory of relativity. It gives the Copley Medal annually; it is the most prestigious scientific award in Great Britain. Candidates for membership must be recommended by several fellows who personally attest to the candidate's scientific achievement. Current membership is over 1,000.

rubella babies
Babies, who are born with or contract rubella (German measles), who suffer one or more complications such as blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy or mental retardation.

ruby faced
Red faced.

Rum was used to intoxicate a patient before surgery before the use of anesthetics.

A hernia. A protrusion of an organ through the cavity wall, caused by weakness from debilitating illness, increased interabdominal pressure from lifting heavy loads or excessive coughing. Also called a rupture.