In the 18th century, Britain experienced a gout epidemic so bad that it changed the course of history. Known as the "disease of kings," gout skyrocketed in the 18th century for one major reason: Britain's wealthy were indulging in new luxuries that contributed to the disease.
What causes gout? Diet plays a major role in the painful joint disorder. In particular, the foods favored by 18th century aristocrats caused gout, including alcohol, sweets, and meat. The gout epidemic was further exacerbated by two major factors: importing lead-tainted wine from Portugal and increasing their sugar consumption five fold in the century.
Somehow, Britain's nobility convinced everyone that gout was a classy disease. They called it an aphrodisiac and claimed gout prevented worse maladies. But the "gout wave" in the 18th century also helped Britain lose its hold on the American colonies.
During the 18th century gout epidemic in Britain, some members of the aristocracy turned into gout snobs. The Earl of Chesterfield ranked diseases by class, declaring that rheumatism was for coachmen but "gout is the distemper of a gentleman.''
Others argued gout was hereditary and that it "ran in good families."
Physician Thomas Sydenham, who suffered from gout, saw the disease as a graceful affliction, shared with ''kings, princes, generals, admirals, [and] philosophers.''
A type of arthritis, gout causes stiffness and swelling in the joints - particularly around the big toe - and results in intense pain. It develops due to a buildup of uric acid in the blood, which occurs when a person consumes more sugar and purine-rich meat than their kidneys can handle. Drinking alcohol also interferes with the body's ability to process uric acid, and worsens the condition.
As the expanding British Empire brought wealth and new delicacies for the aristocracy, alcohol, sugar, and meat became common features on aristocratic menus. Sugar imports from the Caribbean contributed to a massive surge in sweetened foods.
Affluent Englishmen thus ate their way into a gout epidemic.
Britain's foreign policy inadvertently contributed to the 18th century epidemic of gout. The Methuen Treaty of 1703, signed by Britain and Portugal, promoted the consumption of Portuguese port over French wine by establishing nearly seven times the duty fees on claret versus port.
According to scholar Richard Gordon, English gentlemen could suddenly afford to drink four bottles of port a night. Alone, higher rates of alcohol consumption would raise the incidence of gout, but port held an additional danger to drinkers in the 18th century: lead poisoning.
During this era, some alcoholic beverages, like port, were sweetened with lead and stored in lead or lead-lined casks. Lead causes a number of detrimental symptoms when it builds up in the body, including a decreased capacity to remove uric acid. So, in addition to causing lead poisoning, the toxic metal also brought on gout attacks.
Writer Jonathan Swift declared that gout could "give the sick man joy" because the disease "will prolong his days."
In fact, many believed that gout protected men against even worse maladies. Another writer, Horace Walpole, wrote of gout, "It prevents other illness and prolongs life. Could I cure the gout, should not I have a fever, a palsy or an apoplexy?"
Walpole added, "I believe the gout a remedy and not a disease, and being so no wonder there is no medicine for it, nor do I desire to be fully cured of a remedy."