Recently, the UK celebrated the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, marking sixty years of her right regal reign. At some point over the weekend, I made a joke about scrofula - that most historical of diseases - and no-one got it. Now, people often don't get my jokes, and I'm sorry to report that approximately 70% of the time this is because they are Not That Funny. However, the other 30% of the time they are absolutely hilarious, and this was one of those times. Consequently I was forced to the conclusion that either 1.) my friends are, to a man, ardent royalists who refuse to laugh at an old lady purely because she has an unusually heavy and unfashionably metallic hat, or 2.) they didn't know what scrofula was.
And so, in the interests of education, this week's extremely overdue Interesting Medical Fact of the Week will focus on scrofula, a.k.a. the King's Evil, a.k.a. tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis - and how's that for a rapper name?
Scrofula is effectively tuberculosis of the neck, resulting in swollen lymph nodes. In children it is often caused by infections other than mycobacterium tuberculosis, but when tuberculosis is the underlying cause, there are also associated symptoms of fever, weight loss, and malaise. It's a very unsightly illness; the swelling of the neck can become so large that the skin around it ruptures, leaving open wounds.
With the huge decline in tuberculosis rates over the past sixty years, scrofula has become a rare disease, except among the immunocompromised, but historically it was much more common. For hundreds of years in England and France it was commonly believed that scrofula could be cured by the touch of a king,* and indeed monarchs would hold huge events in which they touched hundreds of scrofula patients. From 1633, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer even included a special service for the ceremony, and it was traditional for the monarch to give the affected person a coin. Kings and queens varied in how far they were prepared to go with this tradition, however; although Queen Anne (r. 1702 - 1714) was fond of helping the scrofulous and even touched a young Samuel Johnson, who suffered from the illness, her successor King George I (r. 1714 - 1727) abandoned the practise as being "too Catholic" and also, presumably, too gross.
*Queens were an acceptable alternative for the scrofula sufferer on a budget.