St. Vitus Dance — what a strange name for a disease we now refer to as rheumatic fever! Those who suffer from the disease often make involuntary and irregular jerking movements as a result of muscle spasms. St. Vitus is the patron saint of dancers; thus the name.
Also known as Sydenham’s Chorea, the disease is a complication of untreated strep throat. Other symptoms include swollen and painful joints, a rash, and sometimes weakness and shortness of breath. The medical community of the 1800s also observed that St. Vitus Dance was accompanied by “irritability and depression, and with mental impairment.” Another reference book of the period suggested that such cases often ended in idiocy and many times insanity. It was most common in youth under 18. The only treatment at that time was complete bed rest and regular doses of iron and cod liver oil for four to six weeks.
What 19th century physicians didn’t know was that rheumatic fever could also leave behind damaged heart valves and eventual heart failure.
And that is probably what happened to Dr. Blaine’s youngest son, William Gillespie Blaine. At the age of 14, Will contracted St. Vitus Dance. With loving care from his mother and medications from his father, Will appeared to make a complete recovery within a couple of years. He went on to hold jobs on a lake steamer, a railroad, and at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. When World War I came along, he served almost two years on a hospital train in France and returned home to continue a productive life. But by the time he reached his early forties, he must have slowed down. And in 1932 at the age of 48, he collapsed and died on a couch in his brother’s house. The silent killer had finally caught up with him.
Three years later the “wonder drug,” sulpha, was introduced to the medical community, and the incidence of rheumatic fever and other streptococcal infections decreased dramatically. Sulpha — and later penicillin and other antibiotics — completely changed the landscape of medicine. From that time on, doctors could do more than just treat the symptoms of a disease. They had the power to cure it.