5 Literary Diseases, Explained

Patient Expert
View as:|
1 of 6

The heroines and heroes of classic literature faced illness on top of war, pestilence and heartache. It made good reading, but what were they dying from, really? Find out here!


Though it’s often used as the wasting disease of choice for Victorians, you know it better as tuberculosis, or TB. In many novels and stories, consumptive patients were often given almost saintly characteristics. (Image: “The Sick Child” by Edvard Munch (1896). Munch’s mother and sister Sophie died of TB during his childhood.)

Rheumatic fever

Rheumatic fever was the disease that fatally weakened Beth March in “Little Women.” Before the development of antibiotics, this disease was a major cause of death, particularly in children. Typically, an infection caused by streptococcus bacteria (such as Scarlet Fever) came first, followed by the inflammatory disease known as rheumatic fever.


For many centuries, apoplexy or an “apoplectic fit” was used to describe the symptoms of what we now know as a stroke. These days we use the word apoplectic to mean a fit of rage. (Image: selection from "The Dying Valentine Gode-Darel," Ferdinand Hodler)


Ague was a general term used to describe a number of tropical fevers, including malaria. Shakespeare, Dickens and Laura Ingalls Wilder refer to the deadly fevers and chills that cycle in people who have been bitten by infected mosquitoes. Malaria is still a worldwide problem, causing one million deaths per year, particularly in Africa.

Brain fever

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories discuss characters who have fits of psychosomatic brain fever after witnessing a shock, but in reality, brain fever was meningitis or encephalitis. No need to fear, neither of these diseases can be contracted by receiving a shock! (Image: selection from "Fever," by Jacek Yerka)