The Covid-19 pandemic has made humanity look back and reflect on similar situations of the past, like the Spanish Flu of 1918 or the Black Death of the Middle Ages. But there is one past epidemic that tends to be forgotten - the mysterious English Sweating Sickness (or just The Sweat). There were a few deadly waves of Sweating Sickness between 1485 and 1551. They were mostly contained within England, but a severe wave in 1528 traveled to Germany and then proceeded to spread throughout the Baltic coast, Scandinavia, and Russia.
The last documented outbreak happened in 1551, and after that, it seems the disease disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared. To this day historians and health experts are not sure what caused this epidemic to strike, so you can imagine the poor medieval physicians were completely stumped.
Although it wasn’t as deadly as the plague, which claimed the lives of 60% of the European population in the 14th century, the sweating sickness was dreaded for the speed with which it consumed its victims. Many patients were dead within 18 hours after exhibiting the first symptoms. Only those who survived the first 24 hours made it to full recovery.
The disease began abruptly with fever, extreme aches in the neck and shoulders, abdominal pain, and vomiting. This stage lasted half an hour to three hours, after which the hot phase started. This stage included thirst and sweating so profused that it gave the illness its name. The final stages were characterized by delirium, agonizing shortness of breath that culminated with chest pain, and a rapid pulse. Finally, the victims would collapse and fall asleep, never to wake up again.
A curious aspect of the sweating sickness is that it was most common among the wealthy and the upper class. Dukes, bishops, mayors, and even the royal family fell victim to it. Anne Boleyn, one of the wives of King Henry VIII is said to have contracted the disease and survived it, and the curious death of Artur Tudor, son of King Henry VII, has also been attributed to the Sweat. Fatality rates were also high among the clergy, as the disease spread like wildfire in monasteries.
This trend made one man particularly alarmed. One of the lesser-known traits of King Henry VIII was that he was one of the biggest hypochondriacs to sit on the British throne. He ordered the royal physicians to examine him thoroughly on a daily basis, and any signs of illness in the court would send him into a panic. During the outbreak of 1528, the king fled London, and hopped from safe house to safe house, never spending more than a couple of nights in each bed. When he heard his beloved Anne was ill with the Sweat the quarantined King dispatched his second-best physician, William Butts, with a love letter.
Medical researchers have been comparing the medieval reports on the Sweating Sickness to modern epidemiology, in an attempt to understand the origins of the disease. In 2013, researchers from Queen Astrid Military Hospital in Brussels, published their review in the journal Viruses.
One of their theories is that the sweating sickness was caused by an unknown hantavirus, a type of virus transmitted by mice, rats, and rodents. It doesn’t prompt any signs of illness in the animals but can cause fatal pulmonary infection in humans. The clinical manifestation of the sweat does bear significant similarities to hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS), a modern-day disease, the latest outbreak of which was seen as recently as 2019 in Panama. However, not all of the details add up. The varieties of hantavirus that cause HPS are from the Americas, not Europe. As tempting as it is to imagine the Sweat as a disease imported from the New World, the first wave occurred 7 years before Columbus even made his discovery.
Other culprits might have been the inhalation of anthrax through wool or climate change. The sweating sickness outbreaks coincided with the beginning of a 300-year period of cooling trends in Europe triggered by a series of volcanic eruptions in Indonesia.
“Whether or not the English sweating sickness will strike again is hard to say,” said Dr. Paul Heyman, one of the researchers. We sure hope that it will remain no more than an interesting chapter in history books.