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September 2016

Dermatology and Possession

Author Affiliations
  • 1University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville
  • 2University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery, Miami, Florida
  • 3Texas A&M University Health Science Center College of Medicine, Bryan
JAMA Dermatol. 2016;152(9):1034. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2016.0507

In the classic film The Exorcist, Father Damien Karras is asked, “How does a doctor end up as a priest?” Though the dual vocation of doctor-priest may have fallen out of favor in modern medical practice, societies have attributed death and disease to a higher power since time immemorial. For most of human history, the medical and the mystical have been one and the same.

This holds particularly true for dermatologic conditions. Readily visible, these conditions unfortunately generate disgust and result in the social rejection of afflicted individuals.1 The more stigmatizing the disorder, the greater the belief in a magical or religious etiology. For instance, the Ayurvedic medical system considers leprosy and vitiligo to be more serious and stigmatizing than tinea versicolor. Accordingly, while nearly half of patients with leprosy and vitiligo interviewed in 1992 attributed their disorder to supernatural causes, only 17% of patients with tinea versicolor did so.2

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