Egyptian papyrus scrolls shed light on a mysterious joint disease

Doctor Hans Reiter claimed credit during the 1930s for having identified the rheumatic disease reactive arthritis. Scientists at the Sahlgrenska Academy can now reveal that the disease was known thousands of years ago, a discovery that sheds new light on how diseases become established and spread through the centuries.

It is believed to have led to the death of Christopher Columbus. Erstwhile guitarist of the rock band Kiss Mark St John suffers from it, as does Scottish footballer Ian Murray. The symptoms are described in medical texts from the 19th century, but it was the German doctor Hans Reiter who gave the disease its name – a name that the scientific world has subsequently rejected against the background of Reiter’s experiments in the Nazi concentration camps.

Swedish scientists have now shown that the remarkable and mysterious disease reactive arthritis, also known as Reiter’s disease, was known many thousands of years before it was identified by modern science.

Rheumatologist Jakub Kwieciński of the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, has examined prehistoric Egyptian papyrus scrolls – and found descriptions of this incurable disease from 3,000-4,000 years ago.

“Many unique medical texts from the period 2,000 to 1,000 years before Christ have been preserved in Egypt. The texts give a unique insight into prehistoric medical practice, and we found descriptions of a rheumatic condition whose symptoms – diarrhoea followed by joint pain and bladder problems – correspond exactly with the symptoms of reactive arthritis,” says Jakub Kwieciński.

“The anonymous Egyptian doctors who wrote the texts also made a connection between the rheumatic symptom and a preceding bacterial inflammation in the gut or urinary bladder, thousands of years before modern medical research did.”

The findings not only prove that this mysterious disease is older than previously assumed; they also contribute to increasing our knowledge of the causes and spread of the disease.

“The diseases that affect humans are constantly changing. Old diseases disappear or the symptoms change, and new diseases become established – AIDS and Ebola virus disease are two examples. Studying how diseases change throughout history can teach us more about how current diseases arise and spread. This may, in turn, help us to predict disease outbreaks and to identify ways in which we can combat them,” says Jakub Kwieciński.

The article Reactive arthritis in ancient Egypt: a possible description in medical papyri has been published in the Journal of Rheumatology.

Link to the article:

Jakub Kwieciński, postdoc at the University of Chicago and researcher at the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg
+1 312 9783027 (USA)
+48 604 270989


Reactive arthritis is a joint inflammation that arises a month or a few months after a bacterial infection, most commonly caused by gastro-intestinal bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. The STD chlamydia lies behind some cases of reactive arthritis, particularly in men. The disease can affect people of any age, but it is seldom seen among children. The disease has a clear correlation with hereditary factors. The treatment is principally focussed onto relieving symptoms, using anti-inflammatory drugs.
Source: The Swedish Rheumatism Association

Press Officer
Krister Svahn

Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg
46766-18 38 69
4631-786 3869

The Sahlgrenska Academy is the faculty of health sciences at the University of Gothenburg. Education and research are conducted within the fields of pharmacy, medicine, odontology and health care sciences. About 4,000 undergraduate students and 1,200 postgraduate students are enrolled at Sahlgrenska Academy. Around 1,400 people work at the Sahlgrenska Academy, 850 of them are researchers and/or teachers. 2013 Sahlgrenska Academy had a turnover of 2,4 billion SEK.




Studying how diseases change throughout history can teach us more about how current diseases arise.
Jakub Kwieciński, researcher at the Sahlgrenska Academy