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An Ancient Illness

In “Revenge”, a Miriam bat Isaac story in The Deadliest Deceptions, Phoebe asks Miriam about an ill sailor:

“What was wrong with him?”

Phthisis. But I figured that before I even saw him.”

“Whatever that is.”

“The word means consumption. Hippocrates named it that because the patient wastes away. Based on a description of his symptoms—the cough, fever, and the wasting of the flesh—I knew. So, I filled my satchel with opium, barley water, fish, and fruit.”

Today we know the disease as tuberculosis or TB. The names of ancient diseases often reflect the way early physicians thought about them. For example, typhus, a stormy disease with erratic fevers, was named after Tuphon, the Greek father of winds. Later his name was used as the root for the modern word typhoon. The name for influenza derives from the medieval belief that its cycle of epidemics was influenced by the stars and planets. And tuberculosis, once known as phthisis, was named for the swollen glands that looked like tubers, that is, small vegetables.

Tuberculosis has been with us for thousands of years. In 2008, evidence for tuberculosis was discovered in human remains dating from 9,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean. To date it is the oldest evidence of tuberculosis in humans.

So, tuberculosis is an ancient disease. But you don’t have to be ancient to enjoy reading stories set in the distant past. In fact, the newest book of Miriam bat Isaac’s adventures, The Deadliest Deceptions, will be out in the future. For the exact date and the opportunity to choose another book while you’re waiting, just click here.


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