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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.


The root of the plant Rubia tinctorum used as a medicinal ingredient or as to make a reddish purple colour. It is native to western and central Asia and was formerly extensively cultivated, especially in Holland and France (OED 1832).

A physician who specializes in the treatment of patients with mental problems.

One of many euphemisms for a psychiatric hospital.

A stone or similar object used to treat the bites of rabid or poisonous animals such as snakes. Scientific American reported in 1980 that cattlemen in the American west used the gallstones of white deer or white cattle as madstones to treat animal bites (OED 1824).

A plant otherwise called alysson which was used as a cure for rabies, the bite of a mad dog (OED 1572).

Wormlike fly larvae; used to eat decayed flesh and cleanse deep wounds. Effective treatment which is still used.

1. Liquified rock that spews out of a volcano.
2. A paste of a fine solid suspended in a liquid as in a medicine.

Magman’s Sign
A delusion among cocaine addicts of foreign bodies under their skin. Described by Valentin Magman, 1835-1916.

The unperforated hymen; the ancient symbol of virginity.

Prevalent during spring and early fall in North America. Also known as ‘chills and fever’, fever and ague’ and intermittent fever because of its symptoms. Contracted from the bite of an infected anopheles mosquito with an incubation period of 7-14 days after bitten. First symptom is a strong chill with violent shivering, succeeded by a fever as high as 106 degrees Fahrenheit. Attack usually lasts 10-15 hours. Attacks every day, every other day and every third day. Between the attacks, the patient feels pretty well. No immunity develops. The parasite that causes malaria can linger in the blood for months or years  and when the immune system is disturbed by fatigue, stress, malnutrition or another disease, another attack ensues.  Its treated effectively with quinine. Quinine also prevents malaria in large enough and consistent doses. In the 19th cent no one knew what caused malaria. They thought it was ‘bad air’ caused by crowds, bad smells from swamps and standing water. (ECM)

Feigning illness to avoid work, military duty or to stay in the hospital. Soldiers during World War 1914-1918 suffering from when we would now diagnose as post traumatic stress disorder  were often accused to malingering to avoid going back to the trenches. (Grose) Called ‘hospital rats’  malingers feigned fits, laryngitis, rheumatism, deafness and other easily imitated symptoms.

malmsey nose
Red, pimply nose perhaps caused by rosacea.

Malta Fever
Obsolete term for Brucellosis. Organism brucella melitensis was first identified on the island of Malta when a garrison of British soldiers became ill from the milk of infected goats (OED 1887). Also, called Undulant Fever, Mediterranean Fever, Gibraltar Fever and in cattle, Bang’s Disease.

A spoilt child.

Mandrake root
A carrot like roots that grow in a human shape and thought since ancient times to have magical powers. It has been used as a narcotic, anesthetic and love potion. Root thought to have human feelings and scream when pulled from the soil. Anyone hearing the shriek would go insane.

A dirty, scabby, scurfy skin condition.

A mental disorder, characterized by excitement and often violent behaviour.

A mental disorder caused by excessive alcoholic consumption, characterized by extreme excitement and violent behaviour where the patient might harm himself (OED 1819).

Obstetrician. Original name for a man who specialized in birthing babies and treating pregnant women which had previously been the exclusive business of midwives.


An unspecified illness, "known as the marthambles at sea and griping of the guts by land". Patrick O’Brian is said to have seen the word on a pamphlet of the era by the quack doctor, Dr Tufts. It appears to be contagious and deadly to Pacific islanders.

Mantoux Test
In 1908 it was introduced as the subcutaneous test for tuberculosis using dilutions of old tuberculin. Later it referred to the subcutaneous injection of P.P.D. (purified protein derivative).

mason’s maund
A sham sore above the elbow to pretend to be a broken arm from a fall from a scaffold.

An aromatic resin used as an astringent.

matchworker's disease
Phosphorus poisoning which was an occupational disease of match workers who dipped sticks of wood into phosphorus to make matches. Most of them were young woman. It destroyed the jawbone in most cases and was fatal.

materia medica
Part of the medical school curriculum which covered drugs. The term involved the knowledge of medicinal plants as well as others like opiates, quinine, mercury and calomel.

A woman who were in charge of the hospital wards,  all aspects of housekeeping from laundry to meals. They were often in charge of the nurses, saw that the physicians orders were carried out and supervised patient care.

Infected, as in a wound (U.S. 19th cent.).

A person displaying erratic, eccentric, or somewhat paranoid behaviour. They are not considered insane or sane, but semi-insane (OED 1891).

Backward in speech.

unwell (U.S. 1911).

Rubeola; a specific infectious disease characterised by an eruption of rose-coloured papulae arranged in irregular circles and crescents.  Until immunization in late 20th century, it was a common childhood disease with chicken pox and mumps.

Symptoms are fever, cough, skin eruptions, damage to immune system leaves patient vulnerable to serious aftereffects, called sequalae such as acute bronchitis, pneumonia, eye problems, dysentery, typhoid fever. . Highly contageious. No treatment except bedrest, warmth and good food. Let is run its course (ECM).

medical finger
The second finger on the left hand also known as the ring finger. The Greek and Roman physicians used this finger to stir mixtures. They thought that because its veins were directly connected to the heart, they would know if the mixture was poisonous.

medical grounds, on
For health reasons.

medical man
a (male) medical practitioner (physician, surgeon, etc.) (OED 1784).

medical month
a period of 26 days and 22 hours, formerly supposed by physicians to represent the interval between the crises of disease (OED 1646).

medical officer
a doctor appointed by a company or a civilian or military authority to attend to matters relating to health (OED 1817).

medical purveyors
Doctors who worked as quartermasters for armies supplying all medical equipment and supplies.

A person who pretends to medical skill; a quack, a charlatan (OED 1639).

medicine chest 
1.Cabinet in bathroom where prescriptions and sundry items are kept.
2.A wooden box that held the drugs that a physician or naval surgeon had on hand to treat his patients.

Mediterranean Fever
Obsolete term for brucellosis. Also called "undulant fever", "Malta fever",  and in cattle, "Bang’s Disease".

A severe headache or possibly vertigo.

Condition of general depression.


membrum virile
A penis.

The first time that a young woman menstruates.

A solvent used in the preparation of a drug.

mephitis, mephitic
A noisome or poisonous stench.

Volatile or lively.

mercury ; mercury poisoning
A metallic element used for the treatment of syphilis until the development of antibiotics in the 1940s; in anything but miniscule doses it is a deadly poison. The usual dosage of mercury was a quarter of a grain; Element of ‘heroic’ medicine regime. It was also used in many industrial processes.Mercury poisoning via inhalation of fumes was an occupational disease of trades that used mercury such as mirror and barometer makers. The symptoms are excessive saliva, sore mouth and gums, teeth loosen, tongue swells and breath becomes foul. Later ,general weakness, bodily pain, insomnia, skin eruptions, gland swelling, ulcers on nose and mouth and brain damage.

mesmerism, a mesmerist
Early term for hypnotism. Franz Anton Mesmer, 1734-1815, was a German physician who developed a theory of “animal magnetism,” which held that an invisible fluid in the body acted according to the laws of magnetism and that disease was caused by obstacles to the free circulation of this fluid. In the 1770s, he publically performed many demonstrations of his ability to “mesmerize” his patients and thus made enemies of the medical establishment.Though his theories were ultimately discredited, he is considered a forerunner of the modern use of hypnosis.

A drug addict.

1. Semen.
2. Used figuratively as courage. Adj. mettlesome.
3. To fetch mettle = masturbation.

To whimper.

miasma, miasmatic
Noxious or infectious exhalations; malarial. Used to indicate airborne source of infection like bad odors caused by sewage, garbage and unwashed bodies as well as swamps.

military fever
Typhoid fever, an acute infectious disease characterized by high fever, red spots on the cheat or abdomen, and often intestinal bleeding. Very common among soldiers and sailors.

milk blotch
A skin disease among nursing mothers. Also called crusta lactae, milk scab, milk scald. (OED 1851)

milk leg
Deep venous thrombosis of the iliofemoral veins, esp. in a post-partum woman (OED 1830) So called because the leg resembled a thin bag of skin filled with milk, taunt, shiny, smooth, with white or mottled skin and dilated veins, It was thought that the milk from the breasts somehow fell to the leg. In 1784, Charles White demonstrated that milk leg was not caused by retained milk but rather by obstructing clots in the veins. Also called white leg.

milk-and-water hellebore
An ineffectual treatment.

milk scab
A skin disease among nursing mothers. Also called crusta lactae, milk scab, milk scald (OED 1851).

milk scald
A skin disease among nursing mothers. Also called crusta lactae, milk scab, milk scald (OED 1851).

Milk sickness
An often fatal illness caused by drinking milk or eating meat from cattle that had eaten poisonous white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) or rayless goldenrod (Haplopappus heterophyllus) It is characterized by vomiting, muscle tremors, respiratory difficulty, convulsions, and coma. Western U.S. (OED 1823).

A curing a disease through the mental powers of the healer, the mind-curer (OED 1855) or mind-curist (1889). William James, in his book the "Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902) referred to the "mind-cure movement" as being a recent development.

The smallest unit of liquid capacity in apothecaries' measure, equal to a sixtieth of a fluid drachm (approx. 0.06 ml). The measure is roughly equivalent to one drop of liquid. Laudanum was traditionally prescribed in drops or minims per dose (OED 1809).

Pain. (19th cent. Georgia, U.S.).

moist humours
The moisture that one expels breathing out, or breathing with one’s mouth open.

A deformed fetus supposed to be caused by the evil influence of the moon (OED 1565).

molar pregnancy
An embryo dies in the womb and a shapeless mass of tissue called a mole forms in its place. This is usually expelled during the second or third month as a firm, red, egg sized mass that looks like a blood clot.

A deformed fetus supposed to be caused by the evil influence of the moon (OED 1565).

Indicative of disease, or unhealthiness.

morbid depression of spirits
Suicidal depression.

Something that causes disease (OED 1652).

Of or relating to measles (OED 1775).

1. A person with mild mental retardation, specifically with an IQ of between 50 & 70. The term was first adopted and given this meaning by the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-minded in 1910.
2. Used colloquially as an insult to people others consider to be fools or less intelligent than themselves (OED 1917).

The state or quality of being morose; depressed, gloomy (OED 1534).

1. death (OED c1300).
2. a corpse (OED c1500).
Often used in compound words like mort bell, a bell tolled during a funeral; mort cape, a cape worn during a funeral; and a mort-head, the death's head, the skull, the ancient symbol of death. mort safe, an iron frame placed over a coffin or at the entrance to a grave as a protection against grave robbers (resurrectionists) in Scotland.(OED 1821); mort-stone, a stone on which the bearers of a dead body rested the coffin (OED 1512).

mortification, mortifying
Tissue death as a result of gangrene.

Ringworm, a contagious, fungal infection of the skin. Circular, scaly patches.(OED c1398).

Weary, exhausted (OED c1450).

Hysteria. Expression "To have fits of the mother" (OED 1618).

Hysterical (OED 1618).

1. A black patch placed on the face as an ornament or to cover a blemish. Popular in 17th century Europe. Came in various sizes and shapes (OED 1676).
2. A natural mark on the skin also called a beauty mark  (OED 1676).
3. A tiny tuft of hair under the lower lip of a man (OED 1970).


2.Having an imaginary illness.

Sullenly angry.

A a contagious viral disease once common in childhood and now practically eradicated thanks to long-term immunization programs since the late 1960's. It continues to be a significant health risk in third world countries. Mumps affects the salivary glands particularly the parotid glands which are located on the face, jaw and under the ears. Mumps are spread from one person to another by salivary droplets and close contact. Symptoms are fever and glandular swelling. There is no specific treatment except mild pain relief medications, soft food and salt water gargles.

The action of cleansing a sore or wound (OED c1425).

mundificant, mundificative
An ointment or plaster used to clean a sore or a wound (OED 1580).

1. An ointment which cleans a sore or wound.
2. A person who cleans sores or wounds (OED c1475).

A substance that has a penetrating, persistent odor, that is obtained from a sac under the abdomen of the male musk deer, used medically as a stimulant.