The disease in the history of PH | Investigator’s opinion

How to make the connection between the recent spike in COVID-19 infections around the world and the history of the Philippines? Did the coronavirus previously exist in another form? Are there historical records of previous pandemics to read and learn?

These and other questions led me to the index of the compilation of 55 volumes of documents known to historians as “Blair & Robertson”.

The primary sources for these volumes cover the period 1493-1898, mainly archival documents translated from the original Spanish to English, edited and annotated by Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson. Blair was the most prolific of the duo. A staff member of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, she helped Reuben Gold Thwaites edit “Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents; voyages and explorations of Jesuit missionaries in New France, 1610-1791; the original French, Latin and Italian texts, with translations and notes in English. It’s 73 volumes without her name on the cover, unlike “The Philippine Islands” where Blair was headlining compared to Robertson, who was director of the National Library in Manila.

I was disappointed that there was nothing in the index under “Plague” and “Pestilence”. This research exercise was like looking for paracetamol in drugstores today. I found the relevant leads in two pages under “Diseases” and “Filipinos: Illness”. Most of the documents themselves were short texts, not enough to fill a column, but the extent and scope of these texts gives us an idea of ​​the diseases that prevailed in the Spanish and pre-Spanish times: abscesses, asthma, beriberi, buboes (bubonic plague), cancer, catarrh, cholera, colic, diarrhea, dropsy, dysentery, gout, headache, hemorrhage, herpes, influenza, insanity, obesity, pamave, rheumatism, rheumatism, scurvy, headache sea, smallpox, syphilis, tetanus, toothache, tumors, ulcers, wounds, etc. Some of the diseases were listed with their other names: colic was hijada, dysentery was flow, and leprosy was bad Lazaro (literally “bad Lazaro”).

Syphilis had the most names: faith crossed, Job’s disease, venereal disease and Portuguese disease! In Japan and India, syphilis was known as the “Portuguese disease”, which suggests that it was introduced to these lands by the Portuguese. The Philippines being a Spanish colony, also did not like Portugal, which is why the venereal disease was called Portuguese disease. In Portugal, however, syphilis is known as the “Castilian disease”. No country wants to own or take responsibility for the spread of syphilis. So the Russians also called it the “Polish disease”, the Italians called it the “French disease” and the French called it the “Spanish disease”. As a child, I heard my chatty aunts in Pampanga calling her in low voices “sakit babae” (women’s disease).

Along with descriptions of known diseases, symptoms are also listed: muscle twitching, loose stools, yellow or black vomiting, etc. Leprosy was quite detailed, including references to lepers exiled from Japan who were treated in Manila, religious orders who set up hospitals for them, even Jesuits who converted lepers in Leyte. As for the treatments, they had vaccines, quarantine, medicines and cures brought by the Chinese and the Spaniards: ambergris, anona bark, Aparicio oil, asana or narra wood, balm, bath, bleeding, water- of life, buyo, cauterization, chocolate, coconut oil or water, crocodile flesh, cups with suction cups or bentosa, dangcalan oil, feces, fish bones, flagellation, fruits, gums, herbs, holy water, milk, opium , plantain seeds, Peruvian bark, Saint-Paul’s earth, santol leaves, snake fat and gall, sibucao wood, theriaca, mineral water, grape wine or nipa, etc.

Remedies for specific diseases have been identified: abscess, asthma, cancer, cold, dropsy, fever, gout, hemorrhage, pain, poison, poisonous bites, wounds, cavities and pain, even a remedy for sodomy! We do not have enough space to list references to doctors, midwives, herbolario, curandero and mangkukulam who have been sought out for cures and remedies. Browsing the Blair & Robertson Index gives me hours and hours of fun, but in the end I’m depressed knowing that so much history hidden in plain sight begs to be written.


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Edward K. Thompson