Were the ancients always at least a little sick?

Was everyone always some varying degree of ill at any given time before we as a species really started taking a crack at Germ Theory and preventative medicine? I would imagine so, especially considering that living conditions and habits before a few hundred years ago were completely unsanitary, but I wanted to know what the reality is. Did you always feel sick, but either dealt with it or were used to it?

It depends.

For things like communicable diseases, people in ancient times usually didn’t travel. They stayed in their home village all their lives and saw the same people every day. So the constant colds that we modern people deal with probably weren’t a problem. You’d have occasional visitors who might transmit a cold, but they weren’t breathing the same air with 1000 strangers on the subway every morning.

For chronic conditions, if you had one, you had one, but there’s no guarantee you’d have some chronic illness. I’ve made it to 43 years without having any chronic conditions that require medication or surgical intervention. But my wife just had gall bladder surgery, without medical intervention she’d have to go through the rest of her life with chronic gall bladder attacks and pain. But if she was eating the same diet as a 1st century subsistence farmer she might not have developed the condition in the first place.

There’s no reason to believe people were “always” sick, even just a little. Most people are perfectly capable of dealing with most of the pathogens they encounter, even in filth.

Of course, every once in a while a pathogen outfoxes an immune system for a time and settles in for a few days or until the host is no longer viable.

Antibiotics and progress in cleanliness have certainly reduced illness. But not from a 100% state of sickness.

I’d say no, they may have been much healthier then today. In Haiti where people live in filth and much of the population does not have medical access people seem health and happy.

Also I was privileged to speak to a native American spiritualist who went into the ways that they used to live in harmony with nature and how they used plants to heal. Supposedly they would watch animals, and what plants they ate when they were sick, which man used to come up with remedies.

I imagine that many folks would have suffered from dental problems, without floride, modern dentistry, and limited dental hygene products.

I remember reading somewhere that in Egypt for example mummies showed lots of tooth damage, in part caused by the grit from grinding grain.

I would imagine that as babies and children, and not being itinerant, children got exposed to most of whatever they’d ever be exposed to right at home at a very young age, which gave their immune system what it needed to build resistances and immunities. As adults then they were probably pretty well defended against pathogenic sickness. Most illnesses they might have gotten when they got older then would have come mainly from the animals they hunted for food.

Typhoid fever ended the Golden Age of Pericles, but that was more of an episodic disease than a chronic condition.

Malaria and smallpox have always been with us and were present in the Roman Empire.

Nutritional deficiencies would have been much more prevalent. The term “rickets” comes from Old English, after all. Beriberi was beri, beri common among rice-dependent cultures in Asia.

This would have been somewhat mitigated by the fact that the ancients by and large would not have been eating sugar.

In Cameroon, where I lived in conditions quite similar to what you may have found in the past, people were indeed a little bit sick all of the time.

Intestinal problems were common- most people had diarrhea or nausea on a regular basis. Cold and flus were about as common as ours, but people also had “background” cases of malaria and TB that would rarely become critical, but would sap their strength on a daily basis. Minor wounds had a high chance of getting infected. Depending on the diet, nutritional deficiencies were common. Teeth were a mixed bag- half of people had beautiful super-white teeth (probably thanks to a low-sugar diet) and half of people had completely rotted screwed up teeth. Older people would have to deal with stuff like long, lingering, untreated cancers.

One big problem with teaching was that both students and teachers would miss significant amounts of time due to illness.

why jump from “no germ theory” to “living in filth”? Some cultures valued cleanliness and probably were about as clean as you can get without running water. Maybe some didn’t.

As you can read here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plymouth_Colony#English life expectancy in the 17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony was very reasonable by our standards, at least for adults. Maybe they are not quite “ancients” but their hygiene was hardly vastly better than previous centuries for purely technological reasons. On the other hand, it was certainly an unusually affluent premodern society. In a society where people have regular famines and lack meat and vitamins maybe life expectancy would have been much worse even with the same good hygiene.

I took a really cool anthropology class in college taught by a mummy expert. We studied actual body parts from people of various time periods including those from primitive societies to see what medical conditions they tended to get. Dental health tended to not be that bad for the bodies from primitive societies. Grit in their diet constantly wore down small caries (cavities) before they had a chance to fully develop. However, things took a huge nosedive in terms of dental health when refined sugar was added in large quantities to people’s diets. They tended to get all kinds of tooth decay especially before modern dental hygiene tools and practices became widespread. You will often see that the teeth of a mummy several thousand years old are in much better shape that someone that died in 19th century America at the same age for example.

In “The Horse, the Wheel, and Language”, David Anthony points out that prior to the domestication of grain, dental decay was very rare. But that’s probably earlier that the time period you’re asking about!

Another problem was that people tended to have a lot of kids- having one every two years was not unusual. Having kids wrecks your body in a number of ways. Lots of people in Cameroon had untreated “female problems” that brought them a lot of grief.

The thing is that before good sanitation and modern medicine it was basically Darwin-all-the-way. Kids would die of all sorts of diseases and those who survived would be because they had stronger immune systems.

Before domestication of animals and agriculture, many of the diseases we are familiar with didn’t exist: Measles, small pox, chicken pox, flu, rubella, malaria, etc. They simply didn’t exist. Most of these diseases came from animals that later infected humans.

It’s one of the reasons why so many American natives died when the Europeans came over. Over the years, the Europeans built up immunity to many of these diseases, but the American natives didn’t. They either didn’t have domesticated animals, or like the llama, their animals were pastoral and not kept in confined enclosures or even inside the home. Thus, they had no diseases to give the Europeans.

Once Eurasians and Africans started farming and raising animals, they got a lot more diseases. Trade made it possible to spread diseases like black plague. One of the most shocking things about reading Team of Rivals was reading about the number of people in Lincoln’s cabinet who had children who died from diseases. Here you had the cream of society, and even they couldn’t prevent their children from getting sick.

I think we forget how much we simply accept the fact that we’re so disease free. When I was a kid, everyone got measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox. Every year, it would run though the community. Depending upon how bad the outbreak, somewhere between 1/5 to 1/2 of the class would be out sick, and some kids never made it back to school. That was the breaks.

Before I was born, polio scares were de rigueur, and every one knew someone who knew someone in an iron lung.

When my oldest son got chicken pox (the only childhood disease left), the chicken pox vaccine was in the latest approval stages, and it suddenly struck me that my son might be the last generation to get this disease. My younger two didn’t get chicken pox, and none of them got mumps, measles, or rubella. None of my children were vaccinated for small pox either since the disease was on its last legs. Soon even the polio vaccine will no longer be given. (And, when my sister was born, she was one of the first to get the vaccine.)

Living or dying often came down to luck. An abscessed tooth, sore throat, or even a cut could become infected and you’d be in serious trouble.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son got strep throat and probably would have died in the 1930’s. He was fortunate to get a new experimental wonder drug called antibiotics. They were still in the clinical trial stage at the time.


Had he gotten sick even a few years earlier the President’s son might have died young.

I’m always surprised at how long famous people lived. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams all lived into their eighties. George Washington lived into his middle sixties. His death is largely blamed on the primitive practice of bleeding sick patients.

I forgot to add that Ben Franklin suffered from various aliments in later life. Modern medicine could have eased his prolonged suffering.

Just a decade earlier Calvin Coolidge’s 16 year old son died of blood poisoning from an infected blister after playing tennis.

In regards to the OP’s question.

Once a person got injured or sick their chance of recovery was very slim. You had to live with a diminished life style.

Teddy Roosevelt was a robust man most of his life. He was famous for his expeditions in Africa, and his travels in the American West. After his Presidency he made an ill fated trip in South America that nearly killed him. It wrecked his health and he was never the same. He had parasites in his legs. Without modern medicine he had no chance of ever regaining his health.

There’s a very good book that details Roosevelt’s hellish trip down the Amazon. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey is a must read for history bufffs.

Dental problems and infectious diseases would have been less of a problem, as explained above, but nutritional deficiencies would have been a bigger problem, and people would have been carrying much bigger parasite loads in general. Malaria has been brought up; there also would have been all the worms and flukes gotten from food, plus schistosomiasis, which you get just from standing in still water and which is one of the most pervasive conditions in the world even today.

I also recall reading, on the Museum of Menstruation’s website I think, that many women had chronic yeast infections due to poor hygiene.

Isn’t everyone slightly sick all the time anyway? I mean, what are our immune systems doing if not continually fighting off infection?