History of Vitiligo

A Historical Depiction of Depigmentation

Vitiligo is an ancient disease that has been observed since the earliest civilizations. Many religions throughout the ages have referred or alluded to a present lack of pigment or the appearance of white spots.


Noticed Throughout Time, Text & Script

In one of the earliest documented cases, a tribe from India known for their dark skin lost all of their pigmentation due to this condition—they called it “Kilas,” which was in reference to a well-known deer with white spots.

In 1550 BC, a famous herbal text known as the Ebers Papyrus mentioned two forms of depigmentation that could be interpreted as either leprosy, a pale swelling, or shades resembling vitiligo.

By 1400 BC, white spots on the skin were referred to as Sveta kushtha in Hinduism.

In 1200 BC, a collection of Japanese Shinto prayers named the Amarakosa also showcases the condition.

Ashtanga Hridayam, one of the texts of the Ayurveda, also explained depigmentation outcomes and prognoses around 600 BC.

When Ptolemy II translated the Bible from Hebrew to Greek in 250 BC, the term Zara’at was interpreted as “lepros,” or scales, and was later falsely attributed to leprosy and similar hypopigmented disorders classified as unhygienic diseases.

Another apparent reference to vitiligo, the Indian Manu Smriti described “Sweta Kushtha,” or “white sickness,” around 200 BC.

Around 400 AD, the Greek historian Herodotus reported that he thought foreigners with lighter skin patches had “sinned against the sun” and were required to leave the land.

In Name & Life

Years later, in the first century AD, the name vitiligo was given by Celsus in his classic Latin book “De Medicina,” possibly derived from the Latin word Vitellius and used to describe the white skin of calves.

Many centuries passed, and vitiligo remained among the most common depigmentation diseases globally, resulting in prejudice or segregation. Many affected people were left unable to find work or even potential marital partners in certain cultures, all due to ancient, outdated religious beliefs.


Strides in Science

After the Middle Ages, around 1533, Andreas Vesalius brought attention to the fact that skin has two layers. Several decades later, Jean Riolan The Younger (1580 -1657) learned the skin could be separated into an upper layer of “black” or (horny layer) and a lower white layer “as snow” (dermis).

In 1819, Giosue Sangiovanni discovered melanocytes in the common squid and named them “chromatophores,” meaning a cell that contains pigment.

Friedrich Henle identified pigment-producing cells in 1837 within the human epidermis that were identical to those found in animal eyes, such as barnacles or crustaceans. He named these groupings “epithelia,” which refers to continuous sheets of cells, largely because they were structurally similar.

Around the time 1879, Moritz Kaposi was a pioneer in discovering missing granules from rete pegs which caused vitiligo when examining patients with the loss-of-pigment disorder.

Then, in 1917, Bruno Bloch described the DOPA reaction indicating the presence of the melanin-producing enzyme tyrosinase within the melanocyte.

In summary, it took about 4000 years from the time man first noticed bothersome white spots on his skin until it was finally identified that melanocyte is the primary cause of depigmentation and other pigmentary illnesses.

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