The Swiss disease

News of a strange malady, unique to the inhabitants of a single country, comes from the edition of The Medical Museum for 1764:

The Swiss are subject to a disorder, which is called by some Nostology, by others Nostomany, and by some again Philopatridomany.  

As any medic with a working knowledge of ancient Greek will tell you, ‘philopatridomany’ means ‘ardent desire to return to one’s own country’.  If your GP doesn’t even know that, find another doctor.

When a Swiss has been for some time absent from his family, he begins to find himself oppressed with a deep and continual sorrow: at first his sleep is short and interrupted; by little and little his nocturnal disquietudes become habitual; his strength leaves him; he loses all relish for meats or drinks; becomes stupid and taciturn, and shews scarcely any other tokens of life, than by profound and frequent sighs; and at length he falls a prey to either a continued or intermittent fever of long duration.

It appears either that Switzerland was an exclusively male nation in 1764, or that this disease affected its menfolk only.

Pining for this. Who wouldn't?
Pining for this. Who wouldn’t?

Scheuchzer, who has given a very particular description of this malady, explains thus the cause of it.  “The Swiss,” says he, “breathe upon the Helvetian mountains a more pure and rare air than what they meet with any where else: in many countries to which they transmigrate, they are obliged to breathe an air more heavy, and less elastic.  The equilibrity betwixt the internal and the external air being thereby no longer maintained, gross and viscous humours are occasioned thereby; and finally, these are the causes of that tragical scene presented in the above picture.  This accident happens more frequently to young than to old people; because the skins of these latter being more compact and hard, make a more firm resistance to the impressions of the external air, and those mutations to which it is subject.”

The author is sceptical of Herr Scheuchzer’s dubious ‘elastic air’ theory:

It may be asked, Why is this malady more frequent and more violent amongst the inhabitants of the Cantons, than any other people?  The answer is; Natural dispositions vary even more than climates; education, food, way of life, occasion great diversities; there is no doubt but the air also has its influence upon the dispositions of men, but the effects it produces among the Swiss exist before, and continue after that they are come away from their mountains.

The Swiss are not exactly renowned for their romantic sensibility, but according to this writer the root of the problem is that they are a nation of Wordsworths:

This people, whatever be the cause, are apparently more deeply affected by the first impressions made upon their hearts than any other; and it is certain that they very often, nay almost constantly, revolve them in their minds, and reflect upon them; the imagination labours with these returning ideas, and the painful and perseverant regret which the memory brings of dear but distant objects, casts them into a gloom of despondency, and produces disorder in the mechanism of the animal frame, by especially indisposing the functions of the heart and the brain, and by relaxing and disordering the nervous system.

And how do they treat this mysterious condition which sounds remarkably like homesickness?  With a sophisticated medical intervention known technically as, er, ‘going home’.

If they are attacked with it, no sooner do they hear the agreeable news of their return to the place they so emphatically regret, but their imaginations representing to them the pleasures they shall receive from revisiting their friends, their relations, their houses, and their fields; they recover their strength and spirits, and joy and chearfulness re-animate them, and deliver them from their former unhappiness.  “It frequently happens,” as Scheuchzer himself affirms, “that the force of fancy alone, without any change of air or situation, often re-establishes these patients in perfect sanity; very often before they have advanced many miles towards home, they resume their wonted gaiety of disposition, and find themselves cured of that cruel delirium; like dead men restored to life by a miracle.”  

The Swiss authority on the ‘Swiss Disease’ is not above a little patriotic hyperbole to end his rather shaky thesis:

Scheuchzer, enamoured of his country, making his apotheosis…adds, “As if Switzerland was a deity that can perform miracles in medicine, when she is invoked by her children.”  

The Stanserhorn Aussicht
By Ikiwaner (Own work) Licensed under GFDL ( via Wikimedia Commons

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