Lupus: A History

The disease lupus got its name in the 13th century. A physician named Rogerius, from Salerno in what is now southern Italy gave it the name– the Latin word for “wolf”– because the facial lesions were thought to resemble a wolf’s bite.

A number of physicians wrote about the rashes and other dermatological signs of lupus over the ensuing centuries. The first modern description of the disease, including a discussion of the less visible effects, was created by the dermatologist Moritz Kaposi in 1872.

Kaposi was the first to recognize multiple types of lupus. In some patients, lupus manifests primarily on the skin, while in others the disease affects the entire body, including internal organs. This is what causes the fever and fatigue associated with the disease. Kaposi wrote that lupus:

[M]ay be attended by altogether more severe pathological changes [...] and even dangerous constitutional symptoms may be intimately associated with the process in question, and that death may result from conditions which must be considered to arise from the local malady.

This insight was proven correct in studies in Baltimore and Vienna in 1904. It was vital to helping patients receive proper care, including preventative measures to protect the kidneys, heart, and brain from damage.

The next major finding was the discovery in 1948 of a cell in bone marrow– an important part of the immune system– associated with lupus. This demonstrated for the first time that lupus is a disease of an overactive immune response. Other studies in the 1950s showed that lupus patients tended to have false positives on tests for viral and bacterial illnesses that worked by looking for a characteristic immune response.

It was also in the 1950s that researchers noticed that family history of lupus was a good predictor of the disease. That was when it was determined that the condition could be passed from parent to child. More recent studies have focused on searching for genetic markers for lupus, and could lead to predicting its presence before symptoms begin to appear.

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