The Bowel Through the Ages

Middle ages painting of a fish market.

If you’re among the many who suffer from bowel illness, you know how that illness affects your life, from getting up and taking your medication every day to hospital visits if symptoms become severe. Your bowel has controlled some part of your personal history. And we here at GastroIntestinal Healthcare hope you are writing your own story every day in spite of it!

Believe it or not, the bowel has played a part in world history, too. Let’s take a look at some of the events and people affected by diseases of the bowel.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, U.S. president and five-star general, had Crohn’s disease

Eisenhower had episodes of abdominal pain and problems with his bowels throughout his life, but the reason for it was not discovered until he underwent emergency surgery for the condition in 1956. Crohn’s disease had caused a small intestinal obstruction and he was rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night. In spite of it, he recovered from the operation and rallied to win a campaign for re-election as president of the United States the next year.

A Swedish physician accidentally stumbled on a medication for inflammatory bowel disease

Many scientific breakthroughs, such as the discovery of penicillin, are lucky accidents, and this one was no different. In the 1940s, Nanna Svartz was searching for a new medication to help her king’s arthritis when she discovered sulfasalazine. This medication is still used by rheumatologists for arthritis today. It is also used to treat ulcerative colitis.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away

The saying originates from German prisoner of war camps during World War I. Prisoners who ate apples from a nearby orchard had less diarrhea than those who didn’t. Eventually, scientists discovered the reason: a compound in apples called pectin. Pectin is one of the active ingredients in Kaopectate, an antidiarrheal medication still in use today.

That guy has guts!

During the United States Civil War, an unwritten code among troops prohibited shooting a man “while he was attending to urgent calls of nature.” Diarrheal illnesses were extremely common on the battlefield, which eventually led to the saying that a man “had to have guts” to be a good fighting soldier, a slang term which has made its way into our vocabulary today, though in a slightly different variation.

Cholera takes over the world

Accounts of a cholera-like diarrheal illness in India date back to 500-400 BC, the time of the Buddha. The writings of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates also mention a similar illness. The organism responsible for the illness we call cholera, Vibrio cholerae, was not discovered until 1883, making it impossible to know whether previous descriptions were truly cholera or not. Regardless, the first pandemic of a cholera-like illness spread from India to other areas of the world in 1817. The invention of the steamship, which made travel easier than ever before, was a factor in facilitating the spread of this disease. In modern times, cholera still appears in places with poor sanitation practices, or more commonly, in the aftermath of natural disasters where sanitation systems are affected. Recently, concerns for a cholera outbreak among the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh prompted a vaccination program which was very successful.

Long live the king!

Or, in the case of these two English kings, long live their successors. Edward I died of a diarrheal illness while on the battlefield trying to suppress a Scottish rebellion for independence in 1307. Henry V (of Shakespearean fame), along with three quarters of his troops, succumbed to diarrhea while fighting to gain territory in France in 1422.

If you’re battling bowel symptoms, whether from a currently identifiable cause or one that will be identified in the future, it seems you’re in good company. The good news is that modern medicine has never before offered so many choices for treatment. Just think of what will become available tomorrow, next week, next year, or in fifty years with advancing research and therapies!