Britain's sick history: how did society's most famous diseases really catch on?

Gout was regarded as a sign of wealth, social success, and wit, even though it was excrutiatingly painful

It may be of little consolation to anyone suffering from them but diseases can be fashionable too.

A new research project aims to look at why some medical conditions seem to epitomise the zeitgeist, catch the media's attention or are even seen as perversely attractive.

From the time of Hippocrates, who first diagnosed melancholia, to the global panic over the spread of Sars in 2003, different ages have had widely differing attitudes to the diseases they spawned.

Dr Clark Lawlor, a reader in English literature at Northumbria University, will oversee the three-year project, funded by a £250,000 grant from the Leverhulme Trust.

It is hoped it could provide an insight to policymakers and help patients who are affected.

Researchers will see how illnesses of mind and body were treated within contemporary literature, medicine and culture in the 17th and 18th centuries, and see how this compares with the present day.

"From consumption and gout in the 18th century to 'thinspiration' websites praising anorexia, and Sars or Swine Flu more recently, diseases come and go – sometimes with alarming rapidity," said Dr Lawlor.

"No major project has yet answered the question of how fashionable diseases come to be formed, maintained and removed from history," he added."

Consumption – a condition we now know as pulmonary tuberculosis – has become inextricably linked the high poetic aesthetic of the Georgian age. John Keats contracted tuberculosis around 1820, eventually dying in Rome the following year. His decline was chronicled by his companion Joseph Severn who accompanied him to Italy, and the pathos of his premature demise has added to the myth surrounding his life and work. John Bunyan had earlier described the condition as "Captain of these Men of Death".

Dr Lawlor said: "Consumption, for example, was known as a 'poetic' or 'beautiful disease', and those who suffered from it had symptoms thought to be beneficial: men and women became thin with alternately red and pale cheeks and allegedly had a greater degree of sensibility and intelligence than others."

Other conditions such as gout were regarded as a sign of wealth, social success, even wit – even though they could be excruciatingly painful. Celebrity sufferers of the "patrician malady" included Edward Gibbon, Samuel Johnson and Robert Browning.

Others such as the vapours – a nervous condition which Victorians believed affected women - have now been forgotten while others such as melancholia were from classical times considered a sign of thoughtfulness.

The research team will look at the rise of diseases such as Aids and the effect this had on medical research and the allocation of resources. They will also look at conditions such as Gulf War Syndrome which commanded considerable media attention following the first conflict in Iraq in the 1990s.

"We will be looking at the paradox of people considering some diseases as fashionable, how and why some diseases become and remain fashionable and then go out of fashion. Gulf War Syndrome, for example, was constantly in the media for a short space of time but has now dropped off the radar.

"There's a certain amount of social trending with disease and this research will shed light on how different diseases are tackled by society," added Dr Lawlor, author of From Melancholia to Prozac: a History of Depression, which cites the explosion in the number of cases of depression coinciding with the marketing of Prozac.

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