Hystorical Context

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
George Santayana, The Life of Reason

Have you seen it before? Or have you seen the same problem in a slightly different form?
G. Pólya, How to Solve It.


Is Morgellons a real disease? Are over 5000 people affected by a common causative agent that causes fibers to appear in the skin, along with itching, lesions and symptoms that match those of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Fibromyalgia?

That seems like a difficult problem to answer. If you can’t immediately answer it, then take the advice of Polya, and ask “have you seen the same problem in a slightly different form?”.

And yes, we have. Right in the question actually, we have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Fibromyalgia. Two syndromes with a long list of symptoms, nothing detectably wrong with the patient, and contested causation. Is Morgellons simply CFS with itching and scratching?

But let’s take Polya’s advice and then add in some Santayana. Has the same problem arisen in the past? It sounds like we would need to look at the history of medicine. Have there been cases where thousands of people though they had a specific novel illness, but that illness turned out to be nothing new?

First let me pause for a second to say, again, that I think people are really sick. They have real symptoms, they may have a variety of problems, they need treatments. What is under debate here is if people all have the same illness, and if “Morgellons” is a new disease.

Back to the past. Morgellons is a complex subject, but the prevailing theory is that there is a degree of psychosomatic illnesses mixed in with real illnesses, and greatly compounded by mass hysteria, fed mostly by the media coverage during 2006.

To understand how this might be the case, we need to look at similar events in history. There are a lot of them, and I cannot do justice to them all, but others have done the work for me, so I shall give you pointers, if you are interested.


“People don’t need the Internet as long as they’ve got the media,” said Edward Shorter, a professor of psychiatry and the history of medicine at the University of Toronto. Once the media reports come out about a new possible disease, even if it’s not real, some people see it, “and they say, ‘That’s what I’ve got. That’s my disease,'” Shorter said.

According to Shorter, mass hysteria has taken many forms:

UTERUS AILMENT: The word hysteria is derived from Greek, meaning “wandering of the uterus.” In the 19th century, many people thought a malfunctioning uterus led to any number of symptoms, including pain, paralysis or amnesia. Sigmund Freud and other early psychologists considered these symptoms psychological.

TEETH: At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a vogue for pulling out all of one’s teeth, “on the grounds that you could be suffering from autointoxication, from infected root canals.”

COLON: Around the time of the first World War, there was a trend of removing much of the large colon “on the grounds that your feces were leaking out of your colon and poisoning the rest of your body.”


In the early 1800s, for example, doctors talked about “spinal irritation,” believing that when a certain point along the spine was pressed or hurt, it created peripheral pains and other motor (muscular) system problems. Consequently, doctors increasingly began seeing patients whose problems conveniently fitted the diagnosis. These patients–usually women–complained of temporary blindness, paralysis, and other ills. Some couldn’t walk, others couldn’t move their arms, many remained paralyzed for months in bed. Doctors would come across patients so catatonic that it was impossible to tell whether they were alive. Unable to detect pulses or respiration, doctors found that the only sure sign of death was when the body emitted a “cadaverous smell.”

Some of these patients no doubt had undiagnosed organic diseases. But Shorter convincingly argues that the majority of cases were psychosomatic.

It’s a funny thing: by the early 1900s, these symptoms had virtually disappeared. Medicine had started to shift away from the spine to the brain. Also, the social position of women improved. Whereas Victorian era mores had rendered women immobile–unable to have careers or lives of their own–psychogenic paralyses were, Shorter contends, “a metaphorical way for women to convey their dysphoria.” Once women won greater freedom, these kinds of symptoms became obsolete.

Psychosomatic symptoms didn’t disappear, however — they simply changed with the times. In case after case, from somnabulism to neurasthenia to “Yuppie flu,” we see how medical and cultural trends alternately reinforce and erode particular psychosomatic symptoms. Shorter argues that this is because patients don’t want to be seen as crazy and they therefore unconsciously or semiconsciously exhibit the “right” symptoms.

Hystories, by Elaine Showalter, Columbia University Press, is a good book on the subject:

Mass Hysteria has been around for centuries. In Extraordinary Popular delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), Charles Mackay, a London journalist, described what he called “moral epidemics,” including tulipomania and witchcraft. One hundred fifty years later, Mackay’s book still has relevance. As Simon Wessely, a senior lecturer in pyschological medicine at Kings College School of Medicine in London, explains, “All that has changed is the precise nature for false explanation. In previous times mass hysteria would be blamed on demons, spiritism and diabolic possessions. Nowadays we are oppressed by equally invisible gases, viruses and toxins

A quote within the above mentioned Extraordinary Popular delusions and the Madness of Crowds is of twisted relevance. Back in the late 1700s, the use of microscopes was causing problems:

Oh that I had remained in that happy state of ignorance wherein you first found me! Yet will I confess that, as my knowledge increased, so did my pleasure, until I beheld the last wonders of the microscope; from that moment I have been tormented by doubt and perplexed by mystery: my mind, overwhelmed by chaotic confusion, knows not where to rest, nor how to extricate itself from such a maze. I am miserable, and must continue to be so, until I enter on another stage of existence.

Does that remind you of anyone?

Morgellons is nothing new. Similar diseases, plagues and demonic possessions have sprung up and spread through the populace since the start of human history. If it follows the path of history, Morgellons will fade away (like Epstein-Barr flavored CFS), and be replaced by something new. You can’t stop it, but we can at least be aware that these things happen, and we can try to mitigate their ill effects by providing some perspective.