Disease in PH history | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Disease in PH history

/ 05:04 AM January 07, 2022

How does one connect the recent spike in COVID-19 infections worldwide to Philippine history? Did the coronavirus exist before in another form or shape? Are there historical records of previous pandemics to read and learn from?

These and other questions led me to the index of the 55-volume compilation of documents known to historians as “Blair & Robertson.”


Primary source material in these volumes covers the period 1493-1898, mostly archival documents translated from the original Spanish to English, edited and annotated by Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson. Blair was the more prolific of the duo. A staff member at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, she assisted Reuben Gold Thwaites in editing “The Jesuit relations and allied documents; travels and explorations of the Jesuit missionaries in New France, 1610-1791; the original French, Latin, and Italian texts, with English translations and notes.” That’s 73 volumes without her name on the cover, unlike “The Philippine Islands” where Blair received top billing over Robertson, who served as director of the National Library in Manila.

I was disappointed that there was nothing in the index under “Plague” and “Pestilence.” This research exercise was like looking for paracetamol in drugstores today. I found the pertinent leads in two pages under “Diseases” and “Filipinos: Sickness.” Most of the material by themselves were short texts, not enough to fill a column, but the range and scope of these texts give us a sense of what diseases were prevalent in the Spanish and pre-Spanish period: abscess, asthma, beriberi, buboes (bubonic plague), cancer, catarrh, cholera, colic, diarrhea, dropsy, dysentery, gout, headache, hemorrhage, herpes, influenza, insanity, obesity, pamave, rheums, rheumatism, scurvy, seasickness, smallpox, syphilis, tetanus, toothache, tumors, ulcers, sores, etc. Some of the diseases were listed with their other names: Colic was hijada, dysentery was flux, and leprosy was mal Lazaro (literally “bad Lazaro”).


Syphilis had the most names: foi franchi, mal de Job, venereal disease, and Portuguese disease! In Japan and India, syphilis was known as the “Portuguese disease,” suggesting that it was introduced to these lands by the Portuguese. The Philippines being a Spanish colony was not keen on Portugal either, so venereal disease was referred to as the Portuguese disease. In Portugal, however, syphilis is known as the “Castilian disease.” No country wants to take ownership of or responsibility for spreading syphilis, so Russians also referred to it as the “Polish disease,” Italians called it the “French disease,” and the French called it the “Spanish disease.” As a child, I heard my gossiping aunts in Pampanga refer to it in hushed tones as “sakit babae” (women’s disease).

Aside from descriptions of known diseases, symptoms are also listed: muscle contraction, loose bowel movement, yellow or “black vomit” etc. Leprosy was quite detailed, including references to lepers exiled from Japan that were cared for in Manila, lepers cared for by religious orders who set up hospitals for them, even Jesuits who converted lepers in Leyte. As for treatments, they had vaccinations, quarantine, medicines, and cures brought in by the Chinese and the Spaniards: ambergris, anona bark, Aparicio oil, asana or narra wood, balsam, bathing, bleeding, brandy, buyo, cauterization, chocolate, coconut oil or water, crocodile flesh, cupping glasses or bentosa, dangcalan oil, excrement, fish bones, flogging, fruit, gums, herbs, holy water, milk, opium, plantain seeds, Peruvian bark, St. Paul’s earth, santol leaves, serpent’s fat and gall, sibucao wood, theriaca, mineral water, wine from grapes or nipa, etc.

Remedies for particular diseases were noted: abscess, asthma, cancer, cold, dropsy, fever, gout, hemorrhage, pain, poison, poisonous bites, wounds, tooth decay and pain, even a cure for sodomy! We don’t have enough space to list down references to physicians, midwives, herbolario, curandero, and mangkukulam who were sought out for cures and remedies. Browsing through the Blair & Robertson index produces hours and hours of fun for me, but in the end I get depressed knowing that so much history hiding in plain sight cries out to be written.


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