How doctors got it wrong: 3 'conditions' they no longer recognize

Medical research has changed how doctors diagnose conditions for the better. Read this Spotlight feature to find out about the top three "medical conditions" that healthcare professionals no longer recognize as such.

In this Spotlight feature, we look at three 'conditions' that doctors no longer recognize as such.

Throughout history — both recent and distant — doctors have made many mistakes.

In some cases, they meant well, but they did not yet have the knowledge or technology to assess a person's health condition correctly.

In other cases, however, they diagnosed non-existent medical conditions or disorders as a means of backlash against social outliers.

Some "conditions" that we will discuss in this Spotlight feature, such as "bicycle face," may sound amusing, while others, such as dysaesthesia aethiopica, may sound scary.

But all of these fabricated "conditions," and especially the fact that some doctors and members of the public took them very seriously at the time, likely had a substantial adverse effect on the lives of the people who received a diagnosis for one of them.

1. Bicycle face: 'A physiognomic implosion'
"The cycling season will be coming on soon, and there is every reason to suppose that more people than ever will take advantage of it — women especially." This is the first sentence of an article called "The dangers of cycling," published by Dr. A. Shadwell in 1897, in the National Review.

Allegedly, this doctor coined the expression "bicycle face" to describe a pseudo medical condition — with mainly physiological symptoms — that affected women cyclists in the early days of cycling in the 1800s. In his article, Shadwell claimed that this "condition" caused a "peculiar strained, set look," as well as "an expression either anxious, irritable, or at best stony" in the rider.

Both men and women could develop bicycle face, though women were implicitly more affected by it since the condition could ruin their faces and their complexions, and thus make them less desirable.

This condition was also a particular result of riding too fast and too far, giving free rein to what Shadwell implied was an unhealthful compulsion.

"A vice [...] peculiar to the bicycle," Shadwell wrote, "is that the ease and rapidity of the locomotion tempt to over-long rides by bringing some desirable objective within apparent reach."

"Going to nowhere and back is dull, going to somewhere (only a few miles farther) is attractive; and thus many are lured to attempt a task beyond their physical powers," he argued.

In her book, The Eternally Wounded Woman, Patricia Anne Vertinsky also cites sources describing "bicycle face" in women as a "general focusing of all the features toward the center, a sort of physiognomic implosion."

However, while this condition appealed to anyone who wanted to discourage cycling, especially for women, it did not last for long. Even at the time, some medical professionals debunked this and similar notions surrounding the alleged threats that cycling posed to health.

For example, according to an article in an 1897 issue of the Phrenological Journal, Dr. Sarah Hackett Stevenson, a female physician from the United States, explained that cycling poses no threat to women's health.

"[Cycling] is not injurious to any part of the anatomy, as it improves the general health. [...] The painfully anxious facial expression is seen only among beginners and is due to the uncertainty of amateurs. As soon as a rider becomes proficient, can gauge her muscular strength, and acquires perfect confidence in her ability to balance herself and in her power of locomotion, this look passes away."

2. Female hysteria: 'A nervous disease'
The fake mental condition that researchers have referred to as "female hysteria" has had a long and fraught history. It has roots in mistaken ancient beliefs, such as that in the "wandering womb," which alleged that the uterus could "go wandering" through the female body, causing mental and physical problems.

concept image of blindfolded woman
Doctors used to think that women were more prone to hysteria, a nebulous mental illness.
In fact, the term hysteria derives from the Greek word "hystera," which means "womb." Yet, female hysteria became a much more prominent concept in the 19th century when the neuropsychiatrist Dr. Pierre Janet began to study psychiatric — and alleged psychiatric — conditions at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, France, in the 1850s.

Janet described hysteria as "a nervous disease" characterized by "a dissociation of consciousness," which causes a person to behave in extreme ways or to feel very intensely. Other famous contributors to the field of medical science, such as Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer, continued to build on these initial concepts throughout the late-19th and the 20th centuries.

Little by little, a complex image of this nebulous mental condition emerged. Typically, doctors diagnosed women with hysteria, as they considered women more sensitive and easily influenced.