5 long-forgotten diseases that scientists could not explain

Modern medicine can work miracles – many once-deadly diseases are now completely treatable. For example, in the past, a stroke always led to the death of a person, but today patients can often be saved with the help of medications that dissolve blood clots formed inside the vessels. Of course, after a stroke a person needs time to recover, but the mortality rate from it today is several times lower than before. In the modern world, thanks to the existence of powerful drugs, even people with HIV can lead a normal life. With all this, there are rare diseases, the causes and consequences of which have remained a mystery to people for a long time. The nature of some of them is still unknown to scientists.

5 long-forgotten diseases that scientists could not explain. Perhaps you can’t even imagine how strange and scary diseases can be. Photo.

Perhaps you can’t even imagine how strange and scary diseases can be

There are many ancient diseases that are still little studied by science. Below we invite you to familiarize yourself with the most interesting of them. To be honest, I can’t even believe in the existence of some of them, but scientists assure that once upon a time people really suffered from such ailments.


  • 1 Kuru disease among the Fore tribe
  • 2 Phosphorus necrosis of the jaw
  • 3 English sweating fever
  • 4 Epidemic of the National
  • 5 Exploding teeth in the 1800s

Kuru disease among the Fore tribe

One of the rarest and incurable diseases in the world is kuru. In the mid-20th century, it affected members of the Fore tribe, who still live in the highlands of New Guinea.

The word kuru comes from the word kuria, which can be translated as “to shake.” People with this disease began to tremble all over their bodies, as well as laugh and a terrible smile that did not disappear until death.

Kuru disease among the Fore tribe. Fore tribe in New Guinea. Image: grimhappenings.com. Photo.

Fore tribe in New Guinea. Image: grimhappenings.com

No one knows for sure what caused kuru disease. The most plausible version is that people became infected with abnormal forms of proteins that cause progressive and destructive prion diseases. Autopsy results of people who died from kuru showed that their brains looked like a sponge.

Most likely, prion infection occurred as a result of cannibalism – the Fore people cooked and ate their deceased relatives in order to “free their souls.” In the 1960s, people stopped practicing cannibalism, but the disease was still sometimes diagnosed in people.

Kuru disease among the Fore tribe. It is believed that more than 800 tribes live in Papua New Guinea. Image: fotoman.name. Photo.

Papua New Guinea is believed to be home to more than 800 tribes. Image: fotoman.name

It disappeared over time, so it is likely that previous cases of the disease were associated with a long interval between infection and the onset of symptoms. According to scientists, the incubation period of kuru disease ranges from 10 to 50 years or even more.

Read also: What diseases did the ancient Egyptians suffer from – they were worse than the common cold

Phosphorus necrosis of the jaw

In 1839, the first case of phosphorus necrosis of the jaw was recorded in Austria. One of the match factory workers developed a terrible toothache, and her jaw festered and literally collapsed due to an unknown disease.

Phosphorus necrosis of the jaw. Match factory workers. Image: pixels.com. Photo.

Match factory workers. Image: pixels.com

Subsequently, there were more such patients, and they all worked in the production of matches using phosphorus. There was no cure for this disease, so doctors could only remove the jaw of the sick person. In most cases, people died of hunger because they could not eat without outside help.

Phosphorus necrosis of the jaw. There were cases of phosphorus infection in the Russian Empire. Image: irkipedia.ru. Photo.

There were cases of phosphorus contamination in the Russian Empire. Image: irkipedia.ru

Phosphorus poisoning only stopped in 1906 after the substance was banned from being used in matches. In total, hundreds of people died from this terrible disease.

English Sweating Fever

Between 1485 and 1551 in England, some people died from sweating fever. This infectious disease, the main symptom of which was high fever, killed people within a day after the first symptoms appeared.

The disease began to spread throughout England after the beginning of the reign of the Tudor royal family. Most likely, the infection originated from some other country, but which one is unknown. It claimed the lives of thousands of people, reaching Ireland and other lands – there it was called the “English plague.”

English sweating fever. The English sweat has caused the death of thousands of people. Image: theconversation.com. Photo.

The English sweat caused the death of thousands of people. Image: theconversation.com

If a person managed to survive, he did not develop immunity. This meant that he could get sick again, and the infection could hit harder the second time. People believed that men and women suffering from English sweat died in their sleep, so they tried to prevent them from falling asleep.

Scientists still don't know why people got the English sweating fever. According to one version, it was an infection transmitted by insects such as ticks and lice. In those days, people's hygiene left much to be desired, so this is a very plausible assumption. But it is still not proven, because scientists do not have genetic materials to analyze the mysterious disease.

Read also:The strangest methods of treating diseases of ancient times

Epidemic “National”

In the 1850s, the National Hotel was popular in Washington (USA). Thousands of people stayed there every year and suffered serious health problems after leaving. Many people experienced enlarged tongues, intestinal inflammation, and diarrhea. There was no explanation for these symptoms, so people began to invent legends about the curse.

The National Epidemic. The National Hotel in Washington. Image: National Photo Company Collection. Photo.

National Hotel in Washington. Image: National Photo Company Collection

Fortunately, over time, the probable cause of the mysterious illness was found. It was discovered that the hotel had a burst sewer pipe and dirty water was leaking into the drinking water pipes.

You may be interested in:The Creepiest “Cures” in Human History

Exploding Teeth in the 1800s

In the 1800s, some people's teeth were exploding. At first, people simply suffered from toothache, which became unbearable over time. Then one of the teeth in the mouth suddenly shattered into pieces. It sounds like something out of a horror movie, but this actually happened in reality.

Exploding teeth in the 1800s. Most likely, people's teeth were exploding due to the composition of dental fillings. Image: news-medical.net. Photo.

Most likely, people's teeth exploded due to the composition of dental fillings. Image: news-medical.net

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For many years, no one could understand what caused these cases. But in 2023, dentists managed to find out the most likely reason. Read our article, Dentists Explain Why Some People's Teeth Exploded in the 1800s.