John Caius and the English Sweating Sickness

John Caius

John Caius

On July 29, 1573English physician John Caius passed away. Caius was one of the founders of the present Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. His classic account of the English sweating sickness is considered one of the earliest histories of an epidemic.

John Caius attended Gonville Hall, Cambridge and after graduating traveled to Italy where he studied under the celebrated Montanus and Vesalius at Padua. He earned his degree as a physician at the University of Padua in 1541. He became a physician and was admitted as a fellow of the College of Physicians, of which he was for many years president.

Caius became physician to Edward VI, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. He was then dismissed on account of his adherence to the Roman Catholic faith. He was incongruously accused both of atheism, and of keeping secretly a collection of ornaments and vestments for Roman Catholic use. The latter were found and burned in the College court.

The Sweating Sickness was a mysterious and highly contagious disease that struck England, and later continental Europe, in a series of epidemics beginning in 1485. The last outbreak occurred in 1551, after which the disease apparently vanished. The onset of symptoms was dramatic and sudden, death often occurring within hours. Although its cause remains unknown, it has been suggested that an unknown species of hantavirus was responsible for the outbreak.

It is believed that the sweating sickness first came to the attention of physicians at the beginning of the reign of Henry VII in 1485. It was regarded as being quite distinct from the Black Death, the pestilential fever or other epidemics previously known, not only by the special symptom that gave it its name, but also by its extremely rapid and fatal course. In 1507, a second, less widespread outbreak occurred, followed in 1517 by a third and much more severe epidemic, when it also spread to Calais. In 1528, the disease reached epidemic proportions for the fourth time and with great severity. It first broke out in London at the end of May and speedily spread over the whole of England, save for the far north. The disease suddenly appeared in Hamburg, spreading so rapidly that, in a few weeks, more than a thousand people died. It continued to spread throughout central Europe and later also reached Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The last major outbreak of the disease occurred in England in 1551. John Caius wrote an eyewitness account of the disease at this time called A Boke or Counseill Against the Disease Commonly Called the Sweate, or Sweatyng Sicknesse.

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