Vitiligo historical perspective

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]: Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Guillermo Rodriguez Nava, M.D. [2]


Human pigmentation diseases, such as vitiligo, have been described for over 3,000 years by different cultures around the world. Some famous texts, as the Eber Papyrus, Atharva Veda or even the Bible, provide a description of "white spotted-diseases" that could include cases of vitiligo. Celsus was the first to use the word "vitiligo" in the first century A.C. and Moriz Kaposi was one of the first to describe the histopathologic features of vitiligo.

Historical Perspective

  • Descriptions of human pigmentation diseases have been made for thousands of years.
  • The first descriptions of what seems to be vitiligo were written approximately 3000 years ago in the Egyptian text Eber Papyrus[1] and in the Indian Vedic text Atharva Veda.[2]
  • The Indian text, the Charak Samhita (800 B.C), describes “spreading whiteness” using the Sanskrit word “svitra”.
  • The bible mentions a variety of skin diseases, such as leprosy, psoriasis and vitiligo, using one word: “Zara’at", which means "white spots".[3]
  • Celsus was the first to use the word "vitiligo" in his book De Medicina (100 A.C.).
  • The word "vitiligo" may have been derived from:[4][5]
    • Vituli: white glistening of the flesh of calves
    • Vitelius: calf
    • VItum: blemish
    • Vitulum: small blemish
  • Moriz Kaposi was on of the first to describe the histopathology of vitiligo as a "lack of pigmented granules" in the skin.[5]
  • Damage to periphereal nerves was the first theory that attempted to explain the pathogenesis of vitiligo.[6]
  • The relationship between autoimmune diseases and vitiligo was observed later in history

Impact on Cultural History

  • In India, they still call vitiligo "sweta kushta" (white leprosy) and women suffering this disease are discriminated against.[7]
  • During the Middle Age in Europe patients with vitiligo were probably diagnosed with leprosy and discriminated against. They were forbidden to work which made them homeless.[8]
  • Other societies, such as Koreans and Germans, were more tolerant with vitiligo patients, as there are portraits of persons who may have had vitiligo. [9][10]

Famous Cases

  • The case of Henry Moss: An African-American, born in Virginia, who at the age of 38 developed vitiligo and started to use his body as an attraction, showing his lesions and charging fees. His case was used as a cornerstone for the debate about the origin of white and black skin. Samuel Stanhope Smith, an American philosopher, said that Henry Moss was the prove that, black skin can turn to white skin. Doctor Benjamin Rush thought that black skin was a form of leprosy and Henry Moss had begun to recover of it. [11]


  1. Nair BK (1978). "Vitiligo--a retrospect". Int J Dermatol. 17 (9): 755–7. PMID 365814.
  2. Koranne RV, Sachdeva KG (1988). "Vitiligo". Int J Dermatol. 27 (10): 676–81. PMID 3069756.
  3. Goldman L, Moraites RS, Kitzmiller KW (1966). "White spots in biblical times. A background for the dermatologist for participation in discussions of current revisions of the bible". Arch Dermatol. 93 (6): 744–53. PMID 5326716.
  4. Kopera D (1997). "Historical aspects and definition of vitiligo". Clin Dermatol. 15 (6): 841–3. PMID 9404686.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Millington GW, Levell NJ (2007). "Vitiligo: the historical curse of depigmentation". Int J Dermatol. 46 (9): 990–5. doi:10.1111/j.1365-4632.2007.03195.x. PMID 17822509.
  6. LERNER AB (1959). "Vitiligo". J Invest Dermatol. 32 (2, Part 2): 285–310. PMID 13641799.
  7. Chaturvedi SK, Singh G, Gupta N (2005). "Stigma experience in skin disorders: an Indian perspective". Dermatol Clin. 23 (4): 635–42. doi:10.1016/j.det.2005.05.007. PMID 16112439.
  8. Dols MW (1983). "The leper in medieval Islamic society". Speculum. 58 (4): 891–916. PMID 11611482.
  9. Hann SK, Chung HS (1997). "Historic view of vitiligo in Korea". Int J Dermatol. 36 (4): 313–5. PMID 9169339.
  10. Wendt V, Wendt U (2007). "[A portrait of a lady with vitilgo painted by Adolph von Menzels]". J Dtsch Dermatol Ges. 5 (5): 432–4. doi:10.1111/j.1610-0387.2007.06288.x. PMID 17451391.
  11. Craiglow BG (2008). "Vitiligo in early American history: the case of Henry Moss". Arch Dermatol. 144 (9): 1242. doi:10.1001/archderm.144.9.1242. PMID 18794486.

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