Leishmaniasis historical perspective

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]


Historical Perspective

Description of conspicuous lesions similar to cutaneous Leishmaniasis (CL) has been discovered on tablets from King Ashurbanipal from the 7th century BCE, some of which may have been derived from even earlier texts from 1500 to 2500 BCE. Arab physicians including Avicenna in the 10th century gave detailed description of what was called Balkh sore[1]. In 1756, Alexander Russell, after examining a Turkish patient, gave one of the most detailed clinical description of the disease. Physicians in the Indian Subcontinent would describe it as Kala-azar (pronounced kālā āzār, the Urdu, Hindi and Hindustani phrase for black fever, kālā meaning black and āzār meaning fever or disease). As for the new world, evidence of cutaneous form of the disease was found in Ecuador and Peru in pre-Inca potteries depicting skin lesions and deformed faces dating back to the first century CE. 15th and 16th century texts from Inca period and from spanish colonials mention "valley sickness", "Andean sickness" or "white leprosy" which are likely to be CL[2].

Who first discovered the organism is somewhat disputed. Surgeon Major Cunningham of the British Indian army possibly saw it first in 1885 without being able to relate it to the disease.[3][4] Peter Borovsky, a Russian military surgeon working in Tashkent, conducted research into the etiology of oriental sore, locally known as "Sart sore", and in 1898 published the first accurate description of the causative agent, correctly described the parasite's relation to host tissues and correctly referred it to Protozoa. However, because his results were published in Russian in a journal with low circulation, his priority was not internationally acknowledged during his lifetime.[5] In 1901, Leishman identified certain organisms in smears taken from the spleen of a patient who had died from "dum-dum fever" (dum dum is an area close to Calcutta) and proposed them to be trypanosomes, found for the first time in India.[6] A few months later, Captain Charles Donovan (1863–1951) confirmed the finding of what became known as Leishman-Donovan bodies in smears taken from patients in Madras, India.[7] But it was Ronald Ross who proposed that Leishman-Donovan bodies were the intracellular stages of a new parasite, which he named Leishmania donovani.[8] The link with the disease kala-azar was first suggested by Charles Donovan, but was conclusively demonstrated by Charles Bentley's discovery of Leishmania donovani in patients with kala-azar.[9] The disease was a major problem for Allied troops fighting in Sicily during the Second World War; research by Leonard Goodwin then showed pentostam was an effective treatment.[10]


  1. Cox, Francis E G (1996). The Wellcome Trust illustrated history of tropical diseases. London: The Wellcome Trust. pp. 206–217. ISBN 1869835867, 9781869835866 Check |isbn= value: invalid character (help). OCLC 35161690.
  2. "WHO: Leishmaniasis background information – a brief history of the disease".
  3. Cunningham, DD (1885). On the presence of peculiar parasitic organisms in the tissue of a specimen of Delhi boil. Scientific memoirs officers Medical Sanitary Departments Government India. Calcutta: Printed by the superintendent of government printing, India. pp. 21–31. OCLC 11826455.
  4. Cox FE (2002). "History of Human Parasitology". Clin. Microbiol. Rev. 15 (4): 595–612. doi:10.1128/CMR.15.4.595-612.2002. PMC 126866. PMID 12364371.
  5. Hoare C.A. (1938). "Early discoveries regarding the parasite of oriental sore". Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 32 (1): 67–92. doi:10.1016/S0035-9203(38)90097-5.
  6. Leishman, W. B. (1903). "On the possibility of the occurrence of trypanomiasis in India". The British Medical Journal.
  7. Donovan, C. (1903). "Memoranda: On the possibility of the occurrence of trypanomiasis in India". The British Medical Journal.
  8. R. Ross (1903). "Further notes on Leishman's bodies". Ibid.: ii: 1401.
  9. C. A. Bentley (24 December 1903). "Telegram to R. Ross". Ross Archives: 47/157.
  10. "Leonard Goodwin – Telegraph". The Daily Telegraph. 14 January 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-18.

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