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The History of Thyroid Disorders

Learn how the knowledge of the thyroid has evolved
The History of Thyroid Disorders

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, was in 2700 BC when seaweed was used as a medical therapy in common day China! 

Goiters and Natural Treatments

Hindu texts contain references to goiters in 0300 BC and seaweed was still being used as a treatment in 0040 BC. Seaweed and other sea life such as ground mollusks continued 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. Other symptoms common with hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism would not have been linked to the gland during early medical science. 

The naming of the gland, the thyroid, did not occur until 1656 by Thomas Wharton; even though by this time the thyroid had been sketched by Leonardo Da Vinci, anatomically described and illustrated, a thyroidectomy had been described, a needle biopsy taken, and the term “cretin” had begun being circulated. 

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).

On the Path to Synthetic Treatments

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 were not identified and named as iodine until later in 1811 by Gay-Lussac. By 1820 iodine would begin to be 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 began being 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” would not enter medical journals until 1862. By this point, total thyroidectomies had been being 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 began being used. In 1910 the term hyperthyroidism was introduced, the use of hypothyroidism dates back to 1850, though 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 were being intensely studied. Medical professionals were relentlessly trying to identify hormones and their role in the body and by and in 1914 E.C. Kendall succeeded by isolating thyroxine or T4. In 1917 Thyroxine (from natural sources) would begin to be sold to the public for $350 a gram. Today levothyroxine, a synthetic form of thyroxine, is one of the most widely prescribed medications. 

Throughout the 1920s and 1930’s medicinal treatments, x-rays, and iodine were all being used to treat thyroid conditions. Methimazole, perchlorate, and a host of other substances entered the scene in the 1950s as possible treatments for hyperthyroidism. During this time period, T3 was discovered and Hashimoto’s antibodies were witnessed, deepening the medical community's understanding of how the thyroid functions and can be affected by disorders.

The Arrival of Common Thyroid Medications

Until the late 1950’s large amounts of pig thyroids were being used to derive thyroid hormone replacements and thyroid medications for hypothyroidism sufferers. 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 largely been replaced by synthetic thyroid substances produced by pharmaceutical companies and were cited as being more reliable and consistent. If thyroid medications were unable to successfully treat the disorder, thyroidectomies or iodine radiation was used, as they still are today. 

A Misunderstood Gland

The thyroid is still being studied and thyroid disorders remain difficult to diagnose and somewhat difficult to treat. They present differently in every patient and similarly, each individual responds differently to treatments and medications. 

Medical professionals have come a long way since using burned seaweed, sea sponges, and crushed mollusks but they still have a ways to go before they solve all of the mysteries of this often misunderstood gland.

In today’s high-tech world, the medical community is making great progress towards identifying and treating a root cause of hypothyroidism, and patients can now access high quality care from the comfort of their homes.

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