Science Diction: The Origin Of The Word 'Epilepsy'

Humans have long suffered from epilepsy, the neurological disorder hallmarked by sudden seizures. Medical historian Howard Markel discusses the condition's names through the millenia, from the "sacred disease" of ancient texts to its description as "the falling sickness" in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

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IRA FLATOW, Host:

Up next, it's time for our monthly episode of Science Diction, where we explore the origins of scientific words with Howard Markel, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Welcome back.

HOWARD MARKEL: Hello, Ira.

FLATOW: Tell us what the word is today. Is it...

MARKEL: The word today is epilepsy.

FLATOW: Epilepsy.

MARKEL: A very odd word. It's - as we know today, of course, it's an abnormal firing of neurons in the brain that leads to some abnormal movements of one part of the body or another, depending on what part of the brain is affected. But for a long time, that disease was terribly feared, and many people thought it was a sacred disease, that somehow people were struck by either a god or a devil to have this uncontrollable movement. And it's very frightening to watch, actually, and so people were very nervous when they saw other people seize.

FLATOW: Mmm. It seems like, at one point or another, Hippocrates described every disease and disorder out there.

MARKEL: He did. You could always rely on Hippocrates. You know, there is a Greek - word - there's always, there's many Greek words, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARKEL: But this one, epilambanem - in len, there's epilepsia - and that literally means to seize or to be taken hold of. And Hippocrates wrote a wonderful treatise called "On the Sacred Diseases." And he said, you know, he described epilepsy to a T because he was such a good observer, but he said this disease is no more sacred than any other disease.

It's affecting some part of the brain, and he explained it in the way he understood the body in terms of four bodily humors and so on. But he was the first one to actually strike out against it being a part of evil or doing bad or a weakness of character or something like that. And he did not like that name. Later on, it became the falling sickness, and that's what it was called for millennia. And, really, even in the English language, for a long time it was referred to as the falling sickness, but that all changed around 1578.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Howard Markel about the definition of the word epilepsy. When did anybody - you say it's a falling sickness. Is that because they were able to define it as a real illness?

MARKEL: Well, yeah. I mean, now epilepsy, we know, is really many disorders...

FLATOW: Right.

MARKEL: ...40 or 50 disorders that include seizures. But when people suffered from what used to be called grand mal seizures or, you know, generalized seizures, they would often fall down. And it struck them, and they fell down or they started seizing. And it was not a bad name. But Henry Lyte in 1578 - he was a famous British botanist - translated another botanist book called "Cruydeboeck" by Rembert Dodoens. He was a Flemish botanist. And there were some recipes of how to treat seizures in there. And Lyte preferred the word epilepsy to falling sickness, and so he used that translation. But, you know, it took another couple of decades.

And it wasn't - of course, you know, if you talk about the Greeks and the Bible, then you have to have Shakespeare. Shakespeare described epilepsy in 1599 in his famous play "Julius Caesar." Now, Julius Caesar did have epilepsy, and Cassius describes him as having, quote, "the falling sickness." But what's really neat is, about a few years later in 1603, in "Othello," Shakespeare describes him as raging and foaming as if he has fallen into epilepsy. And, again, the following year in 1604, in "King Lear," Kent talks to Oswald and says, a plague upon your epileptic visage. That would be a good thing in the playground to say to someone you don't like. But after that, epilepsy really took hold, and it became the way we describe this falling sickness.

FLATOW: Yeah. And a lot of famous historical people had it.

MARKEL: Yeah, epilepsy, or at least seizures. You know, there was Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Dostoyevsky, my favorite - one of my favorite novelists. And, in fact, he gave his character Raskolnikov in "Crime and Punishment" epilepsy, as well. And probably the most humorous if you're an Abbott and Costello fan, Bud Abbott had epilepsy.

FLATOW: Had no idea.

MARKEL: Yeah. He was not on first when it came to that problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I'm glad you said it and I didn't, because I would have.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Do we know, actually, what causes epilepsy?

MARKEL: Well, it depends on what type of epilepsy you have and what part of the brain has been affected. There are a number of causes. For example, if you injure your brain, say you hit your head against something or - and you caused some scarring of the brain tissue, that could be a cause. But so, too, can tumors or metabolic disorders. There are a number of causes that cause the syndrome of epilepsy.

FLATOW: Is it an easy word to research?

MARKEL: Well, yeah, it is. I mean, you know, you start with the Oxford English Dictionary, as I always do, and then you work your way back, and then you start finding out who these people are. So, Hippocrates is easy, and I had known...

FLATOW: Yeah.

MARKEL: ..."On the Sacred Diseases" for my days in graduate school. But I got to meet Henry Lyte along the way, and it's always a great excuse to read Shakespeare.

FLATOW: Yeah. And it's interesting that Shakespeare did incorporate it.

MARKEL: He did. And there's so many, I mean, he was such a wonderful observer of human nature and things that affected human beings. And so there's lots of medicine and science to be described in the plays of Shakespeare.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, Howard, once again, you've done it again.

MARKEL: Well, thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: When you figure out what that is, you let me know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARKEL: Yeah. We'll see who's on first then, huh?

FLATOW: All right. Have a good weekend. Howard Markel is professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, also director of the Center for the History of Medicine there. And if you want to read more about epilepsy, check out our website. It's sciencefriday.com. And we'll give you a whole bunch of stuff there.

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