Ah, nostalgia. It’s Spice Girls dolls, Delia’s catalogs, and MySpace for the Millennials out there, but go back a few centuries ago and nostalgia wasn’t a sentimental yearning for the past. Rather than bittersweet memories, nostalgia was considered a much bleaker feeling. Believe It or Not!, in the 17th century, Swiss physician Dr. Johannes Hofer described nostalgia as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.”

Nostalgia’s Start

Hofer coined the term nostalgia based on the German word Heimweh, (which literally translates to “homesickness”) and soon it became a medical term to describe the sadness Swiss mercenaries and soldiers felt during the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. The suffering was so bad, that, according to doctors at the time, armies “infected” with nostalgia would see soldiers suffer from acute insomnia, anorexia, and and the desperate “ongoing desire to return home.”

the last grenadier of waterloo

Horace Vernet’s “The Last Grenadier of Waterloo” via Wikimedia Commons.

In many cases, soldiers would even succumb to nostalgia. According to Columbia University historian Thomas Dodman, as symptoms worsened, clinical depression set in and, “because of lack of hygiene and medicine, [soldiers] contracted diseases that killed them off,” Dodman explains in an interview via Mashable.

Also known as Schweizer Krankheit or the “Swiss illness” (because it was first identified in those Swiss mercenaries longing to go back home to their mountain homes), nostalgia was considered a serious illness because there was little you could do to cure it. For soldiers, the only cure was to return home – not always possible, and definitely not possible as a quick solution.

An Overreaction?

It was such a severe problem, that by the 19th-century, both mental health professionals and army doctors were researching the issue non-stop. Medical records from the Civil War show that over 5,200 soldiers in the Union were diagnosed with nostalgia, and 58 succumbed to the disease.

Civil War soldiers

Brady National Photographic Art Gallery (Washington, D.C.) 1858- ?

But nostalgia wasn’t an issue that only affected soldiers away in the battlefield. Women in various job positions (like those who moved away from home for live-in domestic work) and children living away from their mothers also experienced symptoms of nostalgia.

In people away from the battlefields, though, nostalgia appeared in a somewhat different form. Doctors diagnosed it by looking for certain symptoms like a “melancholic expression,” tachycardia, excessive sweating, and even gastrointestinal issues like vomiting or heartburn. The treatment was equally varied, including anything from herbal drinks to using medicinal leeches to hospitalization.

A Better Understanding

Over the next century, nostalgia changed from being called a disorder to becoming a repressive compulsive disorder, a form of depression, or simply mental frailty. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that nostalgia broke ties with “homesickness” (its original meaning) and gained his modern definition: a longing for the past, regardless of whether it relates to home or not.

Today, scientists agree that nostalgia is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, studies have shown that people recollecting an event from their past often experience nostalgia as a mix of happiness and sadness – a bittersweetness that tends to feel more positive than negative.

Even better? You no longer have to worry about a doctor being called the next time you feel nostalgic!

By Diana Bocco, contributor for Ripleys.com


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