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Volume 19, Number 11—November 2013


Etymologia: Diphtheria

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EID Etymologia: Diphtheria. Emerg Infect Dis. 2013;19(11):1838.
AMA Etymologia: Diphtheria. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2013;19(11):1838. doi:10.3201/eid1911.ET1911.
APA (2013). Etymologia: Diphtheria. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 19(11), 1838.

Diphtheria [dif-thēre-ə]

From the Greek diphthera (leather), diphtheria is named for the tough pseudomembrane that forms in the patient’s throat. One of the earliest accounts of what may have been symptoms of diphtheria is found in Hippocrates work Epidemics III, written 2,500 years ago. Reports of epidemics of “throat distemper” began to appear in the 1500s, but before the 19th century, diphtheria was known around the world by many different names, such as Syrian ulcer, membranous angina, malignant croup, and Boulogne sore throat. In 1821, French physician Pierre Bretonneau described diphtheria’s unique clinical characteristics during an epidemic in southern France, when he named it diphtérite after the leathery texture of the pseudomembrane.


  1. Laval E. The strangling of children (diphtheria) in Spain (16th and 17th centuries) [in Spanish]. Rev Chilena Infectol. 2006;23:7880.PubMed
  2. MacGregor RR. Corynebacterium diphtheriae. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, editors. Principles and practices of infectious diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone; 2010. p. 2687–93.
Cite This Article

DOI: 10.3201/eid1911.ET1911

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Table of Contents – Volume 19, Number 11—November 2013