Dive Into the History Of RA: Part 2

In the first part of this history lesson on RA, we summarized the 3 theories of RA origin and discussed the role of skeletal remains in support of the various theories. Next, we’ll dive into how RA was first discovered in a medical context and the surprising mentions of RA in art and literature.

The medical history of RA

There was a lot of activity in the 1800s among physicians in search of identifying and describing RA as the modern disease we know today. Here are some of the key happenings that occurred during that period.

Unexplainable joint pain in the early 1800s

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that RA was first described in a medical context. A french physician, Augustin Jacob Landré-Beauvais, was working in a Parisian asylum for women when he noticed some of the patients suffered from unexplainable severe joint pain. Their symptoms couldn’t be categorized by existing disorders like gout or osteoarthritis. In addition, it was peculiar that the disease was more prevalent in younger women than in older men who typically had osteoarthritis. Landré-Beauvais’ initial observations opened the door for further description and research for RA. 1,2

Noted differences between gout and RA in the mid 1800s

In the mid to late 1800s, Alfred Garrod, an English physician, made a discovery that separated RA from the well-known condition of gout. He discovered that people suffering from RA didn’t have high levels of uric acid in their blood like those suffering from https://rheumatoidarthritis.net/types-of-arthritis
. This was proof that RA was a separate disease and served as another step in the journey to the modern definition of RA.1

RA got its name in the late 1800s

Alfred Garrod’s son, Archibald Garrod, also worked on RA, like his father. He gave the disease its modern name in a book entitled Treatise on Rheumatism and Rheumatoid Arthritis. He picked “rheumatoid arthritis” because it more accurately described what the disease does to the body. From there, numerous researchers expanded on the work to help develop our understanding of RA today.1

Representation in art and literature

One of the more interesting references to RA history is in historical art and literature dating back hundreds of years.


Peter Paul Rubens’ The Three Graces (1638) is a painting of 3 graceful and ethereal women standing in a group. When you examine the hand of one of the women, it is easy to notice the deformity and hyperflexion of each finger on her hand, as seen in RA. Some believe the artist took creative liberty and intentionally painted her hand to look this way. In contrast, others argue that Ruben is known for his realism and detail of the human form, which points to the subject having some illness or disorder. When you compare the painting to a real photograph of a similar hand injury of RA, they are very similar.1,3

The most striking example of RA in art can be seen in The Temptation of St. Anthony by Anonymous (mid-15th to early 16th century). In this painting, a beggar is seen holding a bucket. Upon closer look at his hand and wrist, you can see an unnatural bend to the wrist called wrist luxation and contractions in his fingers. The same findings can be seen in someone suffering from an advanced stage of RA.1,4


Lastly, taking a look at literature, Hippocrates wrote:

"In the arthritis which generally shows itself about the age of thirty-five there is frequently no great interval between the affection of the hands and feet; both these becoming similar in nature, slender, with little flesh…For the most part their arthritis passeth from the feet to the hands, next the elbows and knees, after these the hip joint. It is incredible how fast the mischief spreads."1

Much of what Hippocrates describes above can be compared to the symptoms and progression of RA. Hippocrates wasn’t the only ancient physician who wrote about RA. Similar mentions of RA can be seen in passages written by Caesar's physician Scribonius and more.1

The history and evidence of RA in ancient times are fascinating, especially for those who live with RA in present times. It's always good to have an understanding of where you have come from.

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