A disease with many names

The disease has been known by different names through the ages, both in the medical community and among the general population.

Although leprosy is considered to be one of the oldest known diseases, it was not clearly distinguished from other diseases that affected the skin until the 19th century. Up until then, many of those believed to have leprosy probably had other diseases, such as syphilis, skin cancer, cutaneous tuberculosis and certain forms of scabies.

Some designations used to describe the disease or people affected by the disease have been abandoned because they are regarded as disrespectful or because using different terms helps to separate the medical understanding of the disease from the traditional stigma and mythology it carried, for instance the earlier commonly used term ‘leper’.

The term leprosy still has a clear medical definition and is used in large parts of the world. However, in many countries the official term is now Hansen’s disease, named after Doctor Gerhard Armauer Hansen from Bergen, who succeeded in identifying the leprosy bacteria in 1873.

Illustration by Johan Ludvig Losting. Atlas Colorié de Spedalskhed. 1847. University of Bergen Library.
For a long time, it was difficult to diagnose leprosy. Many of those believed to have leprosy may have actually had other diseases, or multiple diseases. Many of the residents at St. Jørgen’s Hospital also developed the lesser-known form of scabies – scabies crustose. This highly contagious form of scabies, in which mites build up thick layers of crusts, is also known as Norwegian scabies.
Illustration: Johan Ludvig Losting. Atlas Colorié de Spedalskhed. 1847. University of Bergen Library.
Detail from one of Lostings illustrations. Photo: Leprosy Museum St. Jørgen's Hospital.
Detail from one of Johan Ludvig Losting’s watercolours. In the 19th century, a number of Norwegian physicians, including Daniel C. Danielssen, primarily referred to the disease as Elephantiasis or Elephantiasis Græcorum.

Utsnitt av bokforside "Elephantias Graecorum" av C.W. Boeck. 1842.
‘Om den Spedalske Sygdom Elephantiasis Graecorum’, by C. W. Boeck. City Physician, 1842.
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