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

Tarrare’s Appetite for Food

Tarrare was a 17th-century man with an insanely bizarre “talent” of having an unsatisfiable appetite for food.

So the story goes, he worked as a street performer, traveling across France with a merry band of prostitutes, thieves, and outcasts. He earned money as a street performer whose act was to eat anything put in front of him – literally anything – from stones and coals to live animals and a ridiculous quantity of food. One report says he once ate a meal for 15 people along with multiple animals. Despite this, he was also slimly built (although he did suffer from exudative diarrhea his whole life).

The story of Tarrare was before the advent of photography or modern documentation, but thankfully we know a bit about it from a set of early medical papers from the 18th century. It’s suggested that perhaps he was just a charlatan and conman. However, due to the lack of information, researchers cannot tell where the myth begins and reality ends, let alone figure out a correct diagnosis.

The 20th Century Sleeping Sickness Epidemic

Between 1915 and 1926, 5 million people became infected with a disease that left them motionless and stuck like a zombified statue. A huge number of these people died shortly after and many never recovered to their normal state. Aside from odd isolated cases, the world has not seen any significant cases of the illness since.

Scientists now call this Encephalitis lethargica, a form of brain inflammation. Modern researchers have tried to unravel the condition once again in recent times, but the only link they found between the victims was the presence of streptococcus, a bacteria most often associated with mild sore throats. Their best guess is that this bacteria underwent an unusual mutation that provoked the immune system to go into hyperdrive and inadvertently attack the brain.


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