History of Gout


© History Oasis

"The gout is my physician, and I am his patient. He keeps me from excesses, both in eating and drinking; from which I hope I shall derive more advantage in the long run than I suffer at present."

—Benjamin Franklin

In the annals of human health, few ailments have woven themselves so deeply and colorfully into the tapestry of our history as gout.

Often glamorized, frequently misunderstood, gout has danced its painful waltz across the ages, leaving in its wake a trail of kings, warriors, and scholars, all crippled by the same mysterious affliction.

Come, let's embark on a journey into the enigmatic world of gout, navigating its tumultuous past and unearthing truths from the layers of myth, controversy, and outright absurdity.


a monarch with gout
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Long before our modern understanding of diet and disease, gout seemed to play a cruel jest on the privileged.

Its victims were primarily found among the upper echelons of society, those who indulged in an opulent lifestyle.

Decadent banquets, brimming with meats and alcohol, were more than just symbols of wealth and power—they were breeding grounds for the development of gout.

The Diet of Decadence

Understanding why the aristocracy and the wealthy suffered from gout leads us to a study of purines—naturally occurring substances found in certain foods.

Meats, seafood, and alcoholic beverages, considered luxury items in past times, are rich in purines.

These substances are metabolized in the body to form uric acid, and excessive levels can crystallize in the joints, causing the painful inflammation characteristic of gout.

The affluent, who had ample access to such foods and beverages, found themselves particularly susceptible to the disease.

Many kings and noblemen were tormented by this painful malady, their affliction documented meticulously in historical accounts.

From the ancient Greek king, Alexander the Great, suspected to have suffered from gout, to the British monarch, King Henry VIII, famous for his ample girth and infamous for his gouty affliction.


bloodletting to get rid of gout
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Amid the prevailing darkness and ignorance of the Middle Ages, humanity's struggle against gout took a turn towards the bizarre.

Faced with the incapacitating pain of the disease, and lacking our modern medical understanding, the afflicted resorted to treatments that can only be described as crude experiments born of desperation.

Bloodletting and boiled crab paste application—these were not mere old wives' tales but well-accepted practices in the seemingly interminable war against gout.


At the heart of this approach was the belief in an imbalance of the body's 'humors' — blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile—an idea inherited from ancient Greek medicine.

The swollen, fiery red joint was viewed as a consequence of an overabundance of 'bad blood.' The seemingly logical solution, then, was to let this blood out, a painful procedure that often left the patient weaker and more vulnerable to infections.

Crustacean Concoctions

As outlandish as it may seem today, the use of boiled crab paste reflects a deeper, underlying belief in the healing properties of marine life.

The crustacean, boiled down to a medicinal paste and applied to the inflamed area, was supposed to draw out the disease, reducing the swelling and easing the pain.

This practice echoed the ancient theory of 'similia similibus curantur' or 'like cures like’.


Count Dracula
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Shrouded in the mystical fog of Transylvanian folklore, the character of Count Dracula is one steeped in terror and fascination.

As Bram Stoker's unforgettable antagonist, Dracula has captivated generations of readers with his uncanny abilities and peculiar aversions.

A particularly eccentric theory has emerged, suggesting that these quirks may be indicative of a very human ailment: gout.

Garlic and Gout

Gout sufferers often find their condition exacerbated by certain foods, garlic being one of them.

The legendary vampire's well-documented aversion to this potent herb could potentially be interpreted as an attempt to avoid a gout flare-up.

Reframing our perception of the Count's supernatural distastes.

The Blood Drinking Habit

But what of Dracula's most infamous characteristic, his insatiable thirst for blood?

Some speculate that this might have been more than a mere predatory instinct. In a twist of cruel irony, the consumption of blood could theoretically lower uric acid levels, providing temporary relief from the pain of gout.

Through this lens, the vampire's notorious habit might be seen as a desperate act of self-medication.


Benjamin Franklin
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Few figures loom larger than Benjamin Franklin.

Scientist, inventor, diplomat, and founding father of the United States, Franklin's influence is felt even today. Yet, behind this facade of accomplishments, lay a personal struggle—his long-standing battle with gout.

Of Gout and Genius

In his twilight years, while serving as an ambassador in France, Franklin penned an unconventional piece titled "The Gout and Mr. Franklin".

Framed as an allegorical dialogue between himself and his gout, it portrayed the typically tormenting ailment as a verbose, critical companion.

Far from lamenting his condition, Franklin conversed, debated, and even humorously sparred with it, revealing an astounding ability to find levity in suffering.

His allegorical piece serves as more than mere entertainment.

It subtly criticizes his lifestyle choices that likely aggravated his gout—overindulgence in food, wine, and a sedentary lifestyle.

His satirical introspection provides us with a poignant reminder of the role of diet and exercise in managing the condition, a perspective that resonates with our contemporary understanding of gout.


a depiction of Gout
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The Victorian era, marked by sweeping social changes and rapid industrial growth, was also subtly shaped by an unexpected player: gout.

This seemingly personal ailment had broader implications than one might imagine, influencing political and judicial procedures, and thereby exerting a profound economic impact.

The Springtime Curse of Gout

Interestingly, gout bore a distinct seasonality, with flare-ups commonly occurring during the spring.

As temperatures rose, the toffs and gentlemen of Victorian England, many of whom served in Parliament or the judiciary, found themselves grappling with painful gout attacks.

This 'gout season', as it was known, was an event that reverberated through the hallways of power and influence.

Empty Seats, Slowed Wheels

The spring flare-ups resulted in a notable decrease in attendance at the Parliament and courts.

The gout-stricken lawmakers and jurists, immobilized by their affliction, were often unable to fulfill their duties. This led to slowed legislative and legal processes, inadvertently stalling the gears of the Victorian government machinery.


suffering from Gout
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The 18th-century French painter James Tissot, renowned for his keen observational skills, brought an unexpected character into this mirror: gout. But instead of showing the ailment's harsh reality, he opted for a depiction that stirred controversy, portraying gout as a fashionable condition.

The Gout Chic

In Tissot's art, gout sufferers weren't presented as victims of an agonizing disease, but rather as refined individuals, sporting elegant canes and using ornate footstools to elevate their afflicted foot.

The disease became less a matter of crippling pain and more a cause célèbre among society's elite.

These embellished representations brought an air of 'coolness' to the condition, fostering a peculiar fascination with the disease.

However, Tissot's portrayal drew sharp criticism.

The glamorization of such a painful condition was seen as trivializing the sufferers' agony, reducing their distress to mere aesthetic elements.

Critics argued that it perpetuated a skewed perception of the disease, stripping away its harsh reality in favor of an almost enviable status symbol.


Hippocrates thinking about Gout
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Hippocrates of Kos, the venerable "Father of Medicine," has left an indelible mark on our understanding of health and disease.

His insights into gout, however, reflect an intriguing divergence from our current knowledge.

Hippocrates, in his observations, opined that eunuchs and overweight individuals were less likely to be affected by gout, a perspective that sharply contrasts with modern medical understanding.

Eunuchs and the Overweight

Hippocrates' belief in the unlikely immunity of eunuchs and overweight individuals to gout is a curiosity.

Perhaps, in his observation, the absence of certain masculine characteristics in eunuchs and the natural padding provided by extra weight somehow protected these groups from the ravages of gout.

In stark contrast to Hippocrates' belief, modern medicine recognizes obesity as a significant risk factor for gout.

Excessive weight can increase the body's production of uric acid and its chances of retaining it, thereby setting the stage for gout.


a man with Gout
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The annals of medical history are filled with theories that, while dubious by modern standards, reflect humanity's age-old struggle to make sense of the enigmatic world of disease.

Gout, a painful condition with a rich historical footprint, was no exception. From planetary alignment to changes in weather, and even one's mental state, a spectrum of external factors was once held responsible for its onset.

Perhaps the most celestial of these theories was the belief that the alignment of the planets influenced the occurrence of gout.

The ancients often looked to the stars for answers, weaving together intricate theories that tied the rhythms of the human body to the celestial dance of the planets.

In this cosmic choreography, a misstep was thought to result in diseases like gout.

The Weather-Gout Connection

More down-to-earth were the beliefs associating gout with changes in the weather.

Sudden cold, damp conditions, or even a swift change in atmospheric pressure, were thought to trigger an onset of the disease.

While weather can affect one's comfort during a gout attack, we now know that it is not a causative factor.

Mental State and Gout

The most introspective of these theories linked gout to one's mental state.

Stress, anxiety, and melancholy were all regarded as possible culprits, a nod to the historical belief in the powerful influence of the mind over the body.

While stress might exacerbate symptoms, it doesn't cause gout per se.


© History Oasis

The Middle Ages, steeped in religiosity and moral didacticism, bore witness to a unique interpretation of disease.

In a world where every event was underpinned by divine purpose, gout was often interpreted as a celestial chastisement, a divine retribution meted out for moral and ethical transgressions. This belief, while deeply entrenched in the zeitgeist of the time, cast sufferers into a harsh light of stigmatization and blame.

A Mark of Transgression

Gout, given its association with overindulgence, was perceived as a direct consequence of sins like gluttony and sloth.

The painful inflammation was seen not merely as a physiological response, but as a tangible sign of divine disapproval, a reminder of the moral imperfection of the sufferer.

This moral interpretation of gout led to widespread stigmatization of those afflicted.

They were viewed not merely as sufferers of a physical ailment, but as sinners bearing visible evidence of their spiritual fallibility.

This belief further deepened the sufferers' plight, as they were burdened not only with physical pain but also with societal blame and moral judgment.


a potato to treat gout
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One such treatment for gout, steeped in folklore and superstition, involved an unassuming participant: the humble potato.

It was believed that carrying a potato in one's pocket could cure gout, based on the theory that the vegetable would somehow absorb the disease.

The potato, a staple in many diets around the world, took on an extraordinary role in this curious treatment method.

Instead of landing on the dinner table, it found its place snugly ensconced in the patient's pocket. The belief was that the potato, kept close to the body, could draw out the ailment much like a sponge soaking up water.

The Magic of the Potato

The underlying idea was that the potato would 'absorb' the disease, somehow drawing the cause of the gout—excess uric acid—out of the patient's body.

This seems a quaint notion to us today, but it highlights the lengths to which sufferers would go to alleviate their discomfort and the depths of their belief in the curative potential of everyday objects.


a raven
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The treatment of gout has seen an array of unusual remedies, from potatoes to pastes. But perhaps one of the most peculiar and culturally specific is the belief that consuming different parts of a bird, specifically a raven, could cure this painful disease.

This folklore, deeply rooted in certain cultures, casts a curious light on our historical understanding of medicinal practices.

The Raven's Role in Gout Treatment

The raven, a bird often cloaked in an aura of mystique and wisdom in various cultural narratives, was unfortunately thrust into the role of a remedy.

The raven's intelligence, combined with its ubiquitous presence in mythology and folklore, might have contributed to its selection as a supposed curative agent. Certain body parts of the raven, consumed in various forms, were believed to offer respite from the agonizing pain of gout.

This belief in the raven's healing powers, however, had a lamentable impact on the bird.

Ravens were targeted and hunted, their existence threatened, all in the name of a cure for gout.

While this did little to alleviate the sufferings of gout patients, it significantly endangered the raven population in regions where this belief was prevalent.