By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Arthritis has a severe impact on people of all ages and has been known to mankind since ancient times. Little was known of the diseases, except its symptoms and signs. Rheumatoid arthritis for example can be traced back to dinosaurs and prehistoric man.
Arthritis in dinosaurs
The first published research reports are a few centuries old. According to a book by Bruce M. Rothschild, “The Complete Dinosaur”, only a small portion of dinosaurs actually suffered anything resembling human arthritis.
On the other hand fossil records show evidence that other forms of arthritis did affect dinosaurs, specifically gout. A detailed examination by Rothschild of the bones of a Tyrannosaurus Rex showed the distinctive holes found in the bones of gout patients.
Early references to arthritis
Reference to arthritis is found in texts at least as far as 4500 BC. A text dated 123 AD first describes symptoms that appear similar to rheumatoid arthritis.
The details were noted among skeletal remains of Native Americans found in Tennessee. Bruce Rothschild showed that Tennessee bones belonged to some of the earliest sufferers of RA, and even today Native Americans tend to acquire the disease more often than people in other ethnic groups.
While examining the bones from the Tennessee site researchers found signs of arthritis with no evidence of tuberculosis. Jim Mobley, much later found spikes of rheumatoid arthritis along with tuberculosis. He suggested that the hypervigilant immune system is protective against tuberculosis at the cost of an increased risk of autoimmune disease.
Coining of the term “arthritis”
Before the 1600’s the disease was rare. It then spread across the Atlantic during the Age of Exploration. In 1859 the disease acquired its current name. The first recognized description of rheumatoid arthritis was in 1800 by the French physician Dr Augustin Jacob Landré-Beauvais (1772-1840) who was based in the famed Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. The name "rheumatoid arthritis" itself was coined in 1859 by British rheumatologist Dr Alfred Baring Garrod.
One of the most important publications on arthritis was by William Musgrave called the De Arthritide Symptomatica in 1715. It is the earliest known text describing in detail the symptoms of RA.
Rheumatoid arthritis in 16th century
Rheumatoid arthritis appears to some to have been depicted in 16th century paintings. This was seen mostly in paintings of hands deformed with the disease. The art of Peter Paul Rubens may possibly depict the effects of rheumatoid arthritis.
Well known arthritis patients
Some of the well known rheumatoid arthritis and arthritis patients include Lucille Ball (comedienne), Auguste Renoir (artist), James Coburn (actor) and Camryn Manheim (actress).
Reviewed by April Cashin-Garbutt, BA Hons (Cantab)