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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.


D and C
Dilatation and currettage. 1. An operation to remove any pieces of placenta from the uterus after delivery to prevent bleeding or infection.
2. An abortion. Unwed girls could refer to having a D and C as if it  were a normal gynecological procedure of some sort. In some cases, the girls themselves did not know they had had an abortion, since the decision had been made between her mother and the family doctor.  

dandy fever
Another term for Dengue fever, a viral disease of the Middle East spread by mosquitos, characterized by severe joint pain, fever and skin eruptions. Also called break bone fever.

Danielssen-Boeck's disease 
Another term for leprosy or Hanson's Disease (OED 1847).

datura stramonium
Datura is a herb of the nightshade family, poisonous, with an unpleasant odor. Stramonium is the dried leaves and flowering top of the jimsonweed, formerly used as an antispasmodic and a sedative (it can also be an hallucinogenic).

A pair of forceps, usually for dental work.

Abbreviation of chemical compound dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane. It was synthesized in 1874, but its potent insecticide properties were utilized after World War II, 1939-1945. It has helped stop outbreaks of malaria by killing mosquitos, but most western countries including Canada have banned its use due to the catastrophic effect it had on the whole food chain.

dead fingers
A common name for Raynaud's disease, a disease of the circulatory system which causes the fingers and toes to become colourless and waxy. It can last a short time or many hours and if severe, the fingers may be so bloodless that they do not bleed if cut. It is associated with high levels of stress.

dead meat ticket / dog tags
An identification disk worn by military personnel. They were first issued by the Australian army in 1906. The two disk system was standard issue in the Commonwealth and the United States by 1916 during World War I. Stamping practices differed somewhat between countries. By 1918, they were stamped with the initials and surname, identification number, medical alerts and religious denomination. The Commonwealth also stamped the disks with an abbreviation of the country of origin e.g., CDN for Canadian. One disk remained with the body, the second disk was returned to headquarters. Early disks were made of fiberboard which deteriorated and burned. They were replaced by stainless steel by 1944. The number of bodies that were never identified decreased significantly from 25% during the American Civil War  to 2% during the Korean War. DNA sampling of soldiers has now reduced this number to zero.

A bed in which a person dies.

death on
1. exceedingly fond of.
2. addicted to.
3. exceedingly against.

Debilitas or debility
Weakness or infirmity. Words used to describe a general, severe, disabling weakness. Patients who were unable to eat, unable to retain nourishment through vomiting or diarrhea would be weak. There was Debility from acute dysentery and Chronic diarrhea with debility. The second type was not associated with a disease. Patients had a poor appetite, little energy, lethargy, depressed, vague aches and pains.  Might be malingering, early stage of scurvy (ECM).

A deceased person (Scottish 15th-17th cent., used in U.S. law).

Any disease in which the bodily strength gradually fades such as pulmonary tuberculosis (OED 1783).

The process of boiling in water to extract soluble parts.

State of being broken down by long or hard use.

The loss of virginity in a female; the breaking of the hymen in the vagina through sexual intercourse. Poetically likened to the plucking of a flower, flora in Latin.

A temporary state of extreme mental excitement, marked by restlessness, confused speech, and hallucinations. It sometimes occurs during a fever.

delirium tremens
A serious medical condition seen in acute withdrawal of alcohol from a chronic alcoholic, with delirium and hallucinations, but also with high fever and severe electrolyte imbalance, which can be rapidly fatal if not treated. It can be prevented by the administration of benzodiazapams - tranquilizers - in high and slowly decreasing doses, always in a hospital setting. Also known as DT.

A patient suffering from insanity.

dementia praecox
Obsolete term for Schizophrenia. In 1883 Kraepelin, a German neurologist classified mental disorders and divided dementia into manic depressive insanity and demential praecox. Praecox means incompletely cooked in Greek. Dementia praecox referred to mental disorder that occurred in adolescents and young adults. Term coined by Willis in 1672.

A crescent-shaped surgical saw.

Soldier in the Australian army on the sick list (20th cent.).

To clear of phlegm, usually referring to a medicine (OED 1668).

to purify through vomiting or diarrhea through the use of a purgative medicine (OED 1650).

Derbyshire neck
Goiter because it was common in that part of England.

Dercum's Disease
Also called adipose dolorosa (OED 1892).

To be injured by cold.

difficulty of presentation
An abnormal position of the fetus in the uterus which makes childbirth more difficult for both mother and infant. The normal position is head first, face up.

Medicine derived from the foxglove plant. It was discovered by William Withering, an English physician and botanist (1741-99) to cure edema or 'dropsy' which is severe congestive heart failure. It is in use today for a variety of heart ailments, although now extracts such as digoxin rather than the plant extract are used, since it is easier to dose than the extract is.

digitalis purpurea
Dried leaves of purple foxglove, used to cure oedema or dropsy, and also as an emetic.

to soothe. (Northern Eng.)

Drowsy, shivery, nervous.

Alcoholism;The compulsion to drink alcoholic beverages.

Feelings of depression (OED 1764).

A disturbance in the health of a patient.

1.Originally the word referred to a place where medicines were mixed and sold, Later, it referred to a medical clinic for the poor which also distributed drugs, the forerunner of modern outpatient and walk in clinics (OED 1699).
2.  In the United States military, it refers to the medical clinic (U.S. 20th cent.).

The transfer of an emotion pertaining to one set of ideas to an inappropriate idea; transfer of emotion from repressed conflict.

One who dissects a corpse.

Originally, this word referred to an illness of any kind occurring in humans or animals (OED 1386). Now, it refers exclusively to rabies.

Trembling eye movements (OED 1818).

Divers Palsy
Also called Caisson Disease or the Bends. Caused by breathed in air under pressure that is considerably more than atmospheric pressure and are subjected to unduly rapid decrease in air pressure. First described in persons who worked in caissons, the box–like compartments used  in under water construction projects such as  bridges and tunnels. Now, also seen in deep sea divers. Extremely painful and fatal.

1. A person who is educated in medicine.
2. A cook on a ship in the U.S. merchant marine (19th cent.).
3. A drink made of milk, water, nutmeg and rum (19th cent.).
4. Brown sherry (19th cent.).

to doctor
to falsify records; to adulterate a food.

Feet in the United States army (U.S. 20th cent.).

A sleeping medicine.

A quantity of a healing drug..

Given a dose of a medicine.

Healthy (Norse).

double pox
Syphilis, a venereal disease.

double tertians
An illness occurring every other day.

Childbirth, when a woman lays down to give birth (OED 1535).

Healthful (OED 1175 Lancshire, Eng.).

A weight of about 1/16 of an ounce Avoirdupois.

A dose of liquid medicine.

The throat (Somerset, Eng.).

Forceps used to pull teeth.

Sleeping poorly (OED 1400).

1. A parlour game played by forming letters with the fingers (OED 1540).
2. Talking by forming letters with the fingers (OED 1559).

Drowned (OED 1325).

To administer a draught of medicine in a forcible manner.
A liquid medicine (OED c1000).

drenching horn
An animal's horn used to administer liquid medicine (OED 1639).

Having a protective covering applied to a wound.

A person who assisted a surgeon during an operation, who covers or dresses the wound.

Diarrhea (Somerset, Eng.).

To suffer pain (Somerset, Eng.).

A person who stutters when they speak.

A small quantity of liquid, approx. .05 of a ml.

drop a stitch
To have a sharp, sudden pain in the back (U.S. 19th cent.).

Old name for the eye disease, amaurosis, which caused blindness by destroying the optic nerve, usually without any external signs (OED 1667).

dropsy, dropsical
Oedema, Kidney failure. A morbid condition characterized by the accumulation of watery fluid in the serous cavities or the connective tissue of the body, often first and most obvious in the ankles and lower legs. Physicians tapped to remove the fluid. Fatal.

dropsy of the head

dropsy of the testicle

A person who sells medicines usually of their own concoction. Now called a druggist or pharmacist (OED 1594).

A person who sells medicines usually of their own concoction. Now called a druggist or pharmacist (OED 1611).

dry gripes
Stomach cramps, also specifically, lead poisoning.

dry nurse
An infant's caregiver who does not breast feed the baby. Breastfeeding, if not done by the birth mother, was outsourced to a wet-nurse (OED 1598).

dry scab
Skin diseases such as the itch, scabies, tinea or syphillis (OED 1250).

dumb arm
Lame arm (U.S. 19th cent).

dust pneumonia
Also called Dust fever. A form of inhalation pneumonia, first noticed among miners as an occupational disease. The dust storms of the 1930's in the prairie states of Kansas and Oklahoma caused dust pneumonia in a large number of farmers and their families who couldn't avoid breathing the air, black with blowing topsoil. Its symptoms are high fever and difficulty breathing. It was fatal especially to the very young and the very old.

1. A sleeping medicine (OED 1393).
2. A disease whose predominant symptom is great lethargy in the patient.
3. To mutter deliriously

Withered (Cumberland, Eng.).

A sickly child, a child that does not thrive (Kent, Eng.)

dyspnoa [disnoa]
Difficulty breathing, laborious breathing (OED 1681).

dyscrasy [discrisy]
Unbalanced mixture of elements or humours in the blood which causes illness (OED 1400).

An infectious disease marked by inflammation and ulceration of the lower part of the bowels, with diarrhea that becomes mucous and bloody.The common treatment was opiates either laudanum or pills. Belladonna, calomel, turpentine, castor oil and quinine. Acute diarrhea cleared up in a few days but chronic diarrhea caused weight loss, weakness. It was the leading cause of death from disease in the Civil war and the third highest cause of medical discharge along with gunshot wounds and tuberculosis. Chronic diarrhea could be caused by multiple bouts of acute diarrhea.

dyspepsia, dyspepsy, dyspeptic
Indigestion (OED 1657).

A speech impediment.

Difficulty urinating; painful urination. (OED 1398)