Some Of The Strangest Unsolved Medical Mysteries Of All Time

Dancing mania on a pilgrimage to the church at Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, a 1642 engraving by Hendrick Hondius after a 1564 drawing by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Wikimedia Commons

Within the back pages of history books and the footnotes of medical reports, there’s a handful of cold cases that would make even the most serious scientists go "what the..." From freak illnesses to mass moments of madness, here are a bunch of stories that keep some researchers laying awake at night.

 St. Vitus' Dancing Plague

Toward the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, there was a high number of reports of “dancing mania”. Seemingly out of nowhere, huge groups of people were consumed with an urge to dance, violently jigging around until they collapsed from exhaustion.

One of the biggest “dancing plagues” ever documented occurred on June 24, 1374, in Aachen, modern-day Germany. One account from 1888 recalls this event: “They formed circles hand in hand, and appearing to have lost all control over their senses… for hours together, in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion.”

Another outbreak in 1518 in Strasbourg saw over 400 people dance for weeks on end until dozens died of exhaustion.

Since this happened centuries ago, it’s unclear if this was a genuine condition or a social phenomenon. After all, confused historians in the future may try to understand “the Harlem Shake” or “planking” in a few centuries. However, modern researchers have suggested the "dancing mania" may have been caused by a few things: ergot poisoning from rotting rye, epilepsy, typhus, or even a kind-of shared mania induced by the stress of living in the grim Dark Ages.

The Teenager Who Died Of HIV/AIDs In “The Pre-Aids Era”

The story of Robert Rayford remains a strange medical mystery to date. In 1969, this 16-year-old from St Louis died of an unknown illness. Around 19 years later, a review of his preserved blood found the presence of "a virus closely related or identical to" HIV, meaning that he died of HIV/AIDS complications despite most experts believing that it first appeared in the US during the mid-1970s.

So how did someone so young from the US contract the infection so early? No one is sure. At the time, doctors noted he was also infected with the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia. Rayford told doctors that he was sexually active, although he denied being homosexual or bisexual. Medical records also show no sign that he had received a blood transfusion.

One conclusion left to draw was that he was used as a child-prostitute. That, however, remains speculative.

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