Reports of illness that fit the description of chronic fatigue syndrome go back as far as 1750, when Sir Richard Manningham reported a syndrome called febricula, meaning “little fever.” Papers published by medical journals such as The Lancet and the British Medical Journal also refer to the likelihood that historical figures such as Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin suffered from a condition that resembles the syndrome.
Another example of an illness that clearly resembled what we now call chronic fatigue syndrome was reported in 1934, when there was an outbreak of sickness at the Los Angeles County Hospital. The illness, which mainly affected hospital staff members, was referred to at the time as “atypical poliomyelitis” because it was assumed to be a type of polio.
In 1955, another such outbreak occurred at the Royal Free Hospital in London, where, again it mainly affected the hospital staff and closely resembled chronic fatigue syndrome. This time the condition was given two names, Royal Free disease and benign myalgic encephalomyelitis. In 1969, benign myalgic encephalomyelitis was included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as a disease of the nervous system.
The term “chronic fatigue syndrome” was first used in medical literature to describe an illness that “seemed like chronic active Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection but did not seem to be caused by EBV.” In 1988, the term was defined in a publication: “Chronic fatigue syndrome: a working case definition,” and replaced the term “chronic Epstein-Barr virus syndrome”. This new definition was published after US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers examined patients from another outbreak that occurred at Lake Tahoe, Nevada in the mid 1980s.
In 2006, the CDC mounted a national educational campaign to raise awareness about chronic fatigue syndrome among the general population and healthcare professionals.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc