Views & Reviews Medical Classics

Pain: the Gift Nobody Wants

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 06 July 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d4251
  1. Anthony Papagiannis, respiratory physician, St Luke’s Hospital, Thessaloniki, Greece
  1. antpap56{at}

The Greek word “stigma” literally means a visible mark on the skin. It is also used to designate the characterisation of a person in a negative way that leads to discrimination. Leprosy carried a stigma from Biblical times well into the 20th century. This stigma had its roots in the external deformities that gave patients a repulsive look. A dysmorphic appearance combined with fear of contagion leading to epidemics made patients outcasts. Literature and cinema (for example, Ben Hur, Papillon) perpetuated the idea of leprosy as a “curse of God.” Eventually the name itself was replaced by the politically inoffensive “Hansen’s disease.”

The traditional view was that the flesh …

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