From Miner's Anemia to Blackwater Fever: 24 Bizarre Old-Fashioned Medical Terms

Medicine is a constantly advancing profession. Doctors are always refining their techniques and their terminology, which is why so many medical terms quickly become antiquated. Many of the names of diseases that were widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries are different than the ones we have today, in part because we simply know more about them than we did in the past. If you've ever watched a period piece featuring a character that was constantly weak and coughing due to "consumption," you'd be rightly terrified by the illness. It usually ended in their deaths. Today, it’s called tuberculosis and in most parts of the world, it is treatable.

Terms were also created for symptoms that doctors couldn’t fully explain. Indeed, sometimes these issues were caused by another disease entirely. Malaria, for example, can cause a host of problems that are all only complications of the same disease, but at the time, each symptom had its own archaic medical term. Below is a collection of some of the weirdest old-fashioned medical terms that were once common parlance among doctors, nurses, and yes, surgeron barbers.


  • Bad Blood

    An STI that’s also a horrible bacterial infection, syphilis leads to sores all over the body followed by fever-like symptoms. More horribly, it can eat away at tissue throughout the body, including often the nose and mouth - erosion of the nose and mouth was often a sign of the disease. Syphilis also attacks internal organs, often with deadly results.

    In the 1930s, a syphilis control study was done in Macon County, Alabama. Doctors were doing tests on the predominantly African American community under the guise of testing people for “bad blood” so as not to alarm anyone, and the term eventually became a colloquial name for syphilis.

  • Canine Madness

    An old term for rabies, "canine madness" is one of the more logical antiquated medical terms. People were often infected through dog bites, after all. Rabies infects the central nervous system and induces fever, headache, anxiety, agitation, hyper salivation, and even hydrophobia (fear of water). Without treatment, the virus is fatal.

    Today, however, there is a vaccine that is 100% effective against rabies if treatment begins immediately. 

  • American Plague

    In 1793, yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia. A disease that turns your skin yellow as it shuts down your liver and kidneys, it can lead to internal bleeding and bloody vomit that can be fatal. The epidemic led to around 5,000 deaths and for a time, the virus became known as the "American plague."

    What would the American plague be today? Probably awesome superhero movies. Or ignorance. One of the two.  

  • Softening of the Brain

    In the 1800s, doctors used more... descriptive and informal terms for various medical conditions. Now called encephalomalacia, "softening of the brain" refers to a degeneration of brain tissue that is the result of a lack of blood flow to the brain, often due to a hemorrhage. This causes the brain tissue to become spongy and soft.

    Kind of like when you watch Netflix for six hours straight.