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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.


Usually used in reference to ewes. To give birth to a lamb (OED c1000).

Tonsils (Somerset, Eng.).

Ear trumpet
A hearing aid. One end was placed in the ear while the trumpet end could be spoken into. Many devices were used going back to ancient Greece until the development of modern hearing aids.

Easton's Syrup
A popular prescription in the 19th century. A mixture of quinine and strychnine, named after Dr. J.A.E. Easton, the British physician who created it,

Irritability, bad temper.

Skin blotches caused by small hemorrhages under the skin (OED 1541).

Eclectic, Eclecticism
A term used to describe a school of physicians in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries who advocated medicines and treatments used by the established medical community as well as the homeopaths. There were private medical schools which taught this path of picking and choosing. They were also called botanical physicians due to their heavy reliance on plant derived remedies.

Another term for Christian Science. Named after the founder Mary Baker Glover Patterson Eddy, 1821-1910.

Morbid coloring of the skin due to illness. e.g. flushing of the skin due to fever (OED 1646).

Legal term for the first born child; the eldest child (OED 1586).

1. Old age
2. Elderly people (OED 1000).

A medicinal conserve or paste consisting of a powder or other ingredient mixed with honey, preserve or syrup.

The name given to various kinds of tropical diseases, which make a limb swell hugely and resemble an elephant's hide. It most often affects the leg (OED 1581).

A tangled mass of hair like bed hair or hat hair, superstitiously attributed to the work of elves (OED 1592).

Originally, it meant a preparation sought by alchemists that would change metals into gold (1386). It also referred to a drug that would prolong life indefinitely, the elixir vitae (1266). It was picked up as a name for certain remedies, quack cures, that were mixed and sold by anyone (1631). e.g., Daffy's elixir.

To free any part of the body from spots or other foulness (OED 1623).

embarrassed of
Showing no signs of, e.g., vital signs such as breathing, heart beat.

To rub with liniment, water, oil, or anything in order to promote healing (OED 1612).

Liniment (OED 1612).

Medicine to promote circulation in females.

A medicine that causes vomiting. Vomiting was induced to starve the disease of any food that it might be able to feed on.

A medical quack.

A mixture in which one liquid is dispersed in another.

Pregnant. Its from the legal term "privement enseint" (OED 1599).

An enema is a liquid injected into the colon through the anus intended to either clean out the bowels or medicate.

Involuntary discharge of urine not associated with a disease. This usually means bed-wetting (1800).

English malady
Depression or moroseness regarded as typical of English people (OED 1772).

English melancholy
Depression or moroseness regarded as typical of English people (OED 1772).

Of or pertaining to the intestines. e.g. enteric fever is typhoid fever (OED 1869).

Internal abdominal organs; intestines.

A fever which lasts one day. An ephemeral fever (OED 1398.) Also called milk fever because it comes on two-three days after childbirth and lasts one day.

epidemical distemper
An illness of epidemic proportions.

Epsom salts
Used as an all purpose medicine, 19th- to the early 20th cent. U.K. "The one and only thing we ever got it we complained about anything was a dose of Epsom Salts. It didn't matter if you had a headache or a sore knee or chilblains or what - you still got Epsom Salts. So we soon learned not to complain" (Pain and Pleasure, p.19).

A blister

The diseased seed of rye used medicinally to bring on a birth by causing the uterus to empty itself and contractions begin, first in France and next in the United States (OED 1860).

Poisoning by ergot, a fungus found in rye grass. The poisoning usually occurs when the infected rye is ground into flour and made into bread (OED 1853).The black fungus was used traditionally to induce abortion.

A severe streptococcal skin infection, often fatal. It was a highly contagious infection in an open wound. Began in a break of the skin, causing redness, tenderness and inflammation. Spreads to other skin destroying tissue. If it spreads to the lymph nodes and then the blood stream, it was called blood poisoning or pyemia. There was a 90 percent fatality rate in  the Civil War.  Treated with applications of bromine solution. Currently treated with antibiotics. 


An extract obtained by distillation from a plant and containing its characteristic properties in a concentrated form. In pharmacy chiefly applied to alcoholic solutions containing the volatile elements or ‘essential oil’ to which the perfume, flavour, or therapeutic virtues of the substance are due. (OED 1660).

essence pedlar
A traveler or seller of medicines (U.S. 1838).

essential lesion
The fundamental injury or condition relating to a disease or disorder.

etna pumice
Pumice, a light volcanic rock, is an abrasive agent used to remove hair. Mount Etna is a volcano in Italy, and the largest active volcano in Europe.

The colorless, light, flammable liquid resulting from the action of sulfuric acid upon alcohol, whence it was also known as sulfuric or phosphoric ether. It was one of the earliest anesthetics, less toxic but more volatile than chloroform, the other early anesthetic. Used in surgery as early as 1842.

A local anesthetic developed in 1896 to replace cocaine. It is rarely used now. From the Greek 'eu' meaning good.

The science of the production of fine offspring, esp. in the human race. The interests of the eugenicist are in improving the quality of those born and increasing the proportion of the fine examples as opposed to defective examples (1883). Closely related to human genetics, however, it became the rational in the 19th and 20th centuries for euthanizing and sterilizing people with mental and physical disabilities. It was used by the Nazis to justify their policy of the murder of people with disabilities and genocide of any race they considered inferior to their own, Jews and gypsies specifically. Coined in 1883 by Francis Galton from the Greek eugeneia meaning nobility of birth.

A castrated male. They were employed as harem attendants and under the Roman emperors and important state administrators. Up until the 19th century, castrati, boys were castrated so that they could sing with alto or soprano voices (OED 1430).

euthanasia, euthanasy
An easy death (OED 1633).

Having had the skin stripped away.

expectorant :
An agent used to clear mucus from breathing passages.


A instrument for removing objects during surgery (HMSS 351).

eye disks
Contact lenses

A tooth immediately under or next to the eye, originally one of the upper canine teeth, but now extended to the lower also (OED 1580).

A small piece of chalky material, moistened and put into the eye to absorb and remove foreign matter such as cinders (U.S. 19th cent.).

Obsolete plural of eye. Now eyes (OED 1000).