For centuries, many have called gout "the disease of kings" because it affected men who ate rich diets and drank heavily. As early as the ancient Greeks, doctors wrote about gout, claiming that only wealthy men could become afflicted with it. And when royals like Henry VIII came down with gout, it transformed into a fashionable condition. Just like the French imitated the royals at Versailles, Europeans aimed to get gout as a status symbol. In the 16th century, men claimed that gout prevented other maladies and even called it an aphrodisiac.
What causes gout? Today, we know that uric acid in the blood leads to gout, but ancient doctors blamed a simpler culprit: rich foods. The symptoms of gout include excruciating pain, often in the foot or joints. And while gout might seem like a disease of the past, it's on the rise in the United States today.
People affected by gout describe the condition as agonizing. In the late 17th century, physician Thomas Sydenham wrote that gout was "so exquisitely painful as not to endure the weight of the clothes nor the shaking of the room from a person's walking briskly therein." Patients were often "awakened by a pain which usually seizes the great toe," Sydenham wrote. He likened the sensation to a "dislocated bone."
In the 19th century, Sydney Smith said it felt like "walking on eyeballs" when his gout flared up.
From the earliest description by Hippocrates, gout was linked with indulgent foods and high alcohol consumption. And because only the wealthy could afford the diet that caused gout, it was known as the "disease of kings."
Some eras depicted gout as desirable since it provided visible proof of wealth. In a 1900 comment from the London Times, a writer declared, "the common cold is well named - but the gout seems instantly to raise the patient's social status." After all, gout sufferers were politically connected and affluent. By 1964, Punch declared:
In keeping with the spirit of more democratic times, gout is becoming less upper-class and is now open to all... It is ridiculous that a man should be barred from enjoying gout because he went to the wrong school.
Medical treatments for gout ranged from acupuncture in ancient China to consuming autumn crocuses in the Byzantine Empire. But the strangest remedy for gout appeared in a 1518 medical book. Physician Lorenz Fries suggested a peculiar recipe: "Roast a fat old goose and stuff with chopped kittens, lard, incense, wax, and flour of rye. This must all be eaten, and the dripping applied to the painful joints."
Of all the treatments used in the past, the Byzantines may have had the best idea. Today, colchicine, made from the autumn crocus, is still used to treat gout.
Gout wasn't only associated with the wealthy - it was also seen as a protective disease. In the 18th century, Horace Walpole suggested that gout "prevents other illnesses and prolongs life." He added, "Could I cure that gout, should not I have a fever, a palsy, or an apoplexy?"
Since gout was one of a small number of maladies that affected the wealthy in larger numbers than the poor, Europeans may have believed gout protected them from the more common illnesses. Walpole declared, "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."