Thyroid conditions have likely been around for hundreds of years, especially those caused by autoimmune disorders such as Hashimoto's or Graves' disease. The first mention of the treatment of a goiter, or an enlarged thyroid gland, is in 2700 BC when seaweed was a medical therapy in what is now China!
Hindu texts contain references to goiters in 0300 BC, and seaweed was a relevant treatment in 0040 BC. Seaweed and other sea life such as ground mollusks continue to play a role in the treatment of goiters through 1200 AD by the Greeks, Chinese, and Spaniards. It is likely that since the pronounced bulge in the neck was visible, it was the only symptom attributed to the thyroid gland at the time.
By the time the thyroid was given its name in 1656, much scientific progress already happened concerning the gland. Leonardo Da Vinci anatomically illustrated the thyroid, the process of a thyroidectomy determined, a needle biopsy taken, and the term "cretin" established.
Cretinism is the archaic medical term for untreated hypothyroidism. It eventually morphed to describe individuals with physical deformities and mental challenges. In the beginning, cretinism was associated most commonly with goiters typically due to an iodine deficiency. Eventually, complications of cretinism included constipation (1669) and bulging eyes (1802).
In 1811 iodine was discovered by Bernard Courtois, a French chemist, by burning seaweed with sulfuric acid. The early civilizations with their aquatic remedies were on the right track, after all! The resulting vapors from the burning seaweed was not named as iodine until later that year by Gay-Lussac. By 1820, iodine was used as a goiter treatment.
Iodine treatment first occurred in Switzerland, a region where goiters were quite common, by Jean-François Coindet. Through his study of the use of sea-sponges on the size reduction of goiters and the presence of iodine in the sponges, he decided to try administering small amounts of pure iodine instead of natural products. His treatment had a decent outcome, with the goiter either disappearing or getting smaller in most of his patients.
In 1825, iodine was discovered in the salt coming out of mines in the Northern Andes. As a result, iodized salt was recommended as a preventative measure against endemic goiters. Even today, iodized table salt is a suggested component of a healthy diet.
In 1835, Robert Graves first described the symptoms commonly associated with hyperthyroidism - including a goiter, palpitations, and bulging of the eyes. The term Graves' Disease does not enter medical journals until 1862. By this point, total thyroidectomies have been performed on animals for the past five years.
In 1884, a thyroidectomy was performed on a human patient as a treatment for Graves' disease, and in 1905, radium implantation begins. In 1910 the term hyperthyroidism was introduced; the use of hypothyroidism dates back to 1850. However, the symptoms, causes, and treatments for both diseases were still being investigated and remained quite vague.
By the early 1900s, endocrinology and the body's glands are intensely studied. Medical professionals relentlessly try to identify hormones and their role in the body. By 1914, E.C. Kendall succeeds by isolating the hormone thyroxine (T4). In 1917, thyroxine (from natural sources) begins to sell to the public for $350 a gram. Today, synthetic forms of thyroxine are some of the most widely prescribed medications.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, medicinal treatments, x-rays, and iodine are all used to treat thyroid conditions. Methimazole, perchlorate, and a host of other substances enter the scene in the 1950s as possible treatments for hyperthyroidism. During this time, thyroid hormone triiodothyronine (T3) is discovered, and Hashimoto's antibodies witnessed. This progress deepens the medical community's understanding of how the thyroid functions and can be affected by disorders.
Until the late 1950s, large amounts of pig thyroids were used to derive thyroid hormone replacements and thyroid medications for hypothyroidism patients. In 1958, synthetic thyroid medications became available, but desiccated or dried natural thyroid remained the medication of choice.
However, by the 1970s, natural thyroid medications had primarily been replaced by synthetic thyroid substances produced by pharmaceutical companies. If thyroid medications were unable to treat the disorder successfully, thyroidectomies or iodine radiation might be considered, as they still are today.
The thyroid continues to be studied, and thyroid disorders remain challenging to diagnose, often by misdiagnosis or missed diagnosis. They present differently in every patient and similarly, each individual responds differently to treatments and medications.
Thyroid doctors have come a long way since using burned seaweed, sea sponges, and crushed mollusks. Still, we have a ways to go before they solve all of the mysteries of this often misunderstood gland.
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