Skip to Main Content

Diseases get their names from a variety of sources — from Latin or Greek root words, from place names, from the clinician who discovered them, or a well-known patient who had them.

But we throw disease names around so commonly these days that many of the decades- or centuries-old origins are long forgotten or overshadowed by their modern meaning.

Here are seven diseases with interesting stories behind their names. Have your own curious medical etymology? Leave it in the comments!


1. Listeria

After E. G. D. Murray first isolated Bacterium monocytogenes in 1924, he proposed naming it Lister after a British surgeon who had died a dozen years earlier. Other scientists had already given the name Lister to a type of slime mold. So, Murray ultimately settled on the name Listeria for the rod-shaped bacteria passed along through contaminated food.

The scientific and medical communities considered it an honor to for an individual to have a potentially deadly microbe named after him or her. But Joseph Lister’s posthumous popularity stood in stark contrast to the way he was shunned during his career. While working at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, Lister noticed that half the amputation patients on his ward died of  “hospital disease” (now called operational sepsis)  between 1861 and 1865. Lister theorized that germs cause disease and infections, and experimented with different ways of preventing or destroying germs in the operating room. He came up with steps like hand-washing and using an antiseptic to clean instruments. By 1869, surgical mortality on his ward fell to 15 percent, then went down to zero by 1875. After Lister presented his findings in 1877, the medical establishment in the U.S. and Europe slowly began the practice of using sterilized instruments and gloves in operating rooms. But it’s unclear how much of vindication Lister experienced, as he was blind, deaf, and sickly by then, and died in 1912.


2. Norovirus

In 1968, 150 students at Bronson Elementary School in Norwalk, Ohio, became very sick with vomiting and diarrhea. It took researchers four years and many stool samples to determine that the culprit was what at the time was called, alternately, “winter sickness,” “winter vomiting bug,” or stomach flu. Once investigators isolated and identified the virus that caused the outbreak of Norwalk, the city’s name became the virus’s name. As similar viruses sickened others in subsequent years, doctors began using the norovirus as an umbrella term for the Norwalk virus and its cousins.

To this day norovirus is a regular cause of school outbreaks, including one earlier this year in Northern California’s Yolo County.

3. Cholera

Humoral theory was the driving model of medicine for centuries, from around the 3rd century B.C. to the late 1800s. The theory held that the body contained four main substances, called humors. They were blood, bile, black bile, and phlegm. An overabundance of any one of them threw the body out of balance, the theory went. So, based on that thinking, any condition that caused you to shed one or more humors was simply helping the body get back into balance. Derived from cholē, the Greek word for bile, cholera was originally an umbrella term for any one of several viral or bacterial infections that led to vomiting and diarrhea, which was simply a messy but efficient way to cast off bile, according to humoral theory.

4. Legionnaires’ disease

In 1976, members of the American Legion were celebrating the bicentennial of the country’s founding at their annual convention at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. Soon after the proceedings began, attendees started becoming violently ill with chest pains, confusion, vomiting, and diarrhea. Most alarmingly, other legionnaires didn’t start showing symptoms until they had gone home. This led to worries that the “Philly sickness,” as some initially called it, would spread beyond Philadelphia. In total, 182 legionnaires became ill, and 29 died.

Months later, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigators managed to isolate the cause of the illness: a new type of bacteria they called the “Legionnaire lung loving” bacteria, or Legionella pneumophila. Researchers found out that it had multiplied in the hotel’s water cooling tower. The tower kept the hotel’s rooms cool by allowing air to pass through the water inside it. Then it sent the unwanted heat out of the top of the tower as a fine mist of steam — and Legionella — that rained down onto the hotel guests gathered in a leisure area outside the hotel.

5. Dengue

Medical historians cite a 3rd-century B.C. Chinese medical encyclopedia as the first reported reference to the fever, headache, and rash known as dengue. Dengue is a Spanish-language shortening of a Swahili term for a sudden, cramp-like seizure caused by an evil spirit. But by the time knowledge of dengue got to that Qin dynasty medical book, the Chinese were calling the illness “water poison,” and figured out that flying insects had something to do with it. Today, we know that dengue is indeed passed by infected mosquitoes, which tend to occupy areas with large amounts of standing water.

6. Influenza

Influenza simply means “influence” in Italian. The Latin root, “influentia” literally means “to flow into,” and it comes from way, way, way back in the day when medieval folks thought that humans could fall under the influence of liquid flowing off of stars. Science eventually let the world know that, actually, getting sick with the flu results from being under the influence of any one of a class of viruses.

7. Syphilis

In 14th-century Europe, at a time of constant war, each country tended to blame its enemies for contagious diseases and to name contagious diseases for its enemies. So, what eventually came to be called syphilis was known as “the Neapolitan disease” among the French and “the French disease” among Italians. Russians called it “the Polish disease” and the Polish called it “the German disease.”

This name game came to an end after Girolamo Fracastoro, an Italian doctor and poet, published a story poem about the disease in 1530. Fracastoro’s main character, who had contracted disease, was named Syphilus. But while we have cleared up what to call it, and science has determined that the bacterium Treponema pallidum causes it, we still aren’t quite sure where syphilis came from.

  • Wonderful article,thank you. The etymology of the word “gonorrhea ” takes us to the ever observant Greeks, who postulated that in some way this annoying ailment was related to semen or more precisely the transfer of semen. So, from the Greek word for seed,”gonos” and the term for flowing, ” r h o i a e” we have a disease that is most certainly associated with the flowing of the “seed”.

  • One of my favorites is chikungunya.

    From wikipedia:
    “The word ‘chikungunya’ is believed to have been derived from a description in the Makonde language, meaning “that which bends up”, of the contorted posture of people affected with the severe joint pain and arthritic symptoms associated with this disease.”

Comments are closed.