Sickle Cell Disease: A History Lesson

Sickle Cell Disease: Questioning the Origins of Sickle Cell Mutation

Have you ever pondered the history and origin of this unique cell disease and the reasons behind its development? Those of us who have suffered through sickle cell crisis after crisis cannot help but wonder how and why it emerged, where it came from, and who it has affected throughout history. 

Linking Sickle Cell to History

Through my extensive research, I have learned that this disease dates back to the time of Tutankhamen—or King Tut of ancient Egypt, as many know him. Historians and doctors have assumed that King Tut could have passed from sickle cell complications.  

Regardless, the disease is firmly rooted deep down in the tunnels of history. Tracking sickle cell disease’s lengthy past can take us back—at least 6,000 years—to the ancient tribes of Africa, and we can see its impacts on their beliefs, as well as their healing methods and techniques. While it was known by a variety of names in many different tribal languages, it is commonly accepted that sickle cell disease then was caused by the same mutation that we see today.

Linking Sickle Cell to Malaria

It makes sense, given the location of these tribes, that the natural mutation of the sickle cells has been linked to Malaria. Malaria is a disease that occurs only in subtropical and tropical regions of Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania—regions where sickle cell is prevalent. 

Malaria can be caused by four different parasites: Plasmodium falciparum, P. vivax, P. ovale, and P. Malaria. The parasites present vary for each geographical area, and each area doesn’t harbor all the malarial parasites.

Discovering Sickle Cells

While sickle cell disease has been traced back through history, it wasn’t until 1910 that the disease was officially recognized and recorded—making it seem like a much newer ailment than it truly is. We know that the genetic mutation that causes sickle cell disease has origins much further into history. 

Sickle cell disease was, officially, discovered by Dr. James B. Herrick and his intern Dr. Ernest Irons in the United States in 1910 while attending to a sick student hailing from the island of Grenada. It makes sense that he was from a tropical region. 

It wasn’t until 1922 where Dr. Verne Mason described the illness as anemia characterized by bizarre sickle-shaped cells—and the name stuck—”sickle cell anemia.” Further research into the nature of the disease was conducted over the next few decades, leading to a slightly deeper—although still not complete—understanding of the disease. By 1949, sickle cell was classified as a molecular disorder. 

It is truly confounding that it took the world of western medicine until 1910 to begin to “discover” and truly begin to research a disease that had been known about, and seemingly well-understood, by ancient tribes.

While the “discovery” of the sickle-shaped cells that cause sickle cell disease was fascinating, other researchers have focused their efforts on learning more about the historical development and context of sickle cell disease. Where did it come from? How did it develop? Who has it affected?

Discovering the History of Sickle Cell Disease

Expanded research by Dr. Felix Konotey-Ahulu, a sickle cell researcher from Ghana, Africa, discovered that the origin of this unusually shaped cell can be attributed to a series of events that occurred in Africa

People were aware of the disease—and have been long before western medicine “discovered” it.

The terminology used to refer to sickle cell disease in one African tribe translates to “body biting,” which makes a great deal of sense given the characteristics of the ailment. This name was given to the disease by a tribe famous for its onomatopoeic names  (hemkomchwechweechwenwiiwiiahotutuonuidudui) known to different tribes.

An “Invisible” Disease

The disease is fatal primarily because of its invisibility; until it starts attacking the cells inside your body, leaving you convulsing on the floor in excruciating pain, you don’t even know it’s there. The invisibility of the disease makes it hard to identify victims before it strikes. 

Unfortunately, it isn’t until a patient is screaming in pain that the disease becomes evident. Trust me, you don’t always have to go for a medical diagnostic to know that you’re going through a sickle cell crisis. If you’ve ever had one before, you’ll know when you’re having another. Unfortunately, there may have been treatments we are no longer even aware of…

Treatments Lost to History

There is an assumption that sickle cell disease is linked to a shorter lifespan because of the pathophysiology of the disease; however, this stands merely as an assumption. Even before western medicine acknowledged sickle cell disease, ancient healers must have used plant medicine to treat sickle cell sufferers. 

They focused their healing abilities on individuals with this mutation successfully, as far as we can tell. If we trace the roots of the disease to ancient African tribes, we can see that they knew how to handle it—they knew how to extend their lives even in the presence of the disease.

Unfortunately, due to the slave trade and other impacts of colonialism, we have lost track of that data. While people involved in the slave trade might not have survived the illness due to tragic life circumstances, those with sickle cell trait were likely to live longer. 

Sickle Cell Linked to African Folklore and Healing

The hemoglobin trait of the sickle cell is widespread in the West Africa sub-region, which hints that the disease began in Africa, from times still unknown to us. 

The nastiness of sickle cell disease as it latches onto the blood cells inside the victim’s body is often compared with Ogbanje/Abiku, a spirit of African Folklore. Ogbanje/Abiku refers to an evil spirit that makes its home inside the baby’s body before it’s born. This is not much different from the sickle cell, which originates invisibly and takes hold of the whole human body as a potential enemy.

Folklore explains that the Obanje selects a woman and enters the physical world through her. As the spirit enters her body, it dies and returns the child to the underworld. These evil spirits lived to die and repeat this circle of life. There are other tales related to sickle cell disease and the evil spirits, which the ancient tribes believed and linked to the lives of those who carried these cells inside their body. 

Ancient African tribes didn’t regard these evil spirits as witches. Rather, they were beings who possessed some attributes of magic and held a great deal of power. They were said to have participated in orgies, Mammy Water (a water spirit) cult activity, and that they were possessed by emere—a child who was said to travel between the spiritual world and physical world.

Each tribe had its own perception of the mutation, along with its own ideas on how to heal it (or eliminate the evil spirits). Based on our understanding of history, the tribes had multiple ways of curing the disease—or freeing the possessed body from this evil spirit. 

The African tribes had a solid belief in ancient myths and curses, causing some to believe that this disease was a generational curse caused by someone in a specific tribe. A reason might be the individuals naturally introduced to clans with sickle cell were accepted to be shielded from their progenitors; it might have comprised of extraordinary penance. 

The Bright Side of Sickle Cell – In History and Today

Sickle cell victims were believed to be possessed by different spirits, depending on which tribe they were from. Some believed that a faerie replaces a human baby with a faerie to allow it to experience the realm of humans—the sickle cell child. Others believed Obanje to be an offspring of a demon, instead. 

Interestingly, it was noted that if the Obanje carrier was able to live a longer life, they exhibited unique and desirable traits. These tribe members were stubborn and good-looking, had a sense of happiness, often excelled in certain areas, and were typically exceptionally talented. 

Fiercely independent, easy to describe, though challenging to understand, this mutation gives the carrier a particular bright trait, raising the carrier’s intellectual level above others. Life is full of mysteries, and sickle cell mutation has been around throughout most of known history.

A sickle cell crisis can bring you to the darkest and most painful times of your life. It feels like you are burning in hell as the body has innumerable surges of thundering pain for unknown reasons.

However, there is a bright side of things if you try to develop the “Glass Half Full” side of your personality. Regardless of the excruciating pain, it teaches us how to be resilient, creative, and unique. The mystery of sickle cell gives rise to many other theories; some call it the creation of a witch; others see it as a mutation crafted by an evil scientist to avenge the people on earth—or simply cause their extinction by locking any potential cure away. 

Now it’s your turn to tell! What theories do you have about sickle cell and its origins? 

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