[Skip to Navigation]
Notable Notes
March 2017

Early Reports of “Sycosis”

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of History of Medicine, School of Medicine, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Thessaloniki, Greece
  • 2Dermatology, Department of Dermatology, University Hospital of Alexandroupolis, Alexandroupolis, Greece
JAMA Dermatol. 2017;153(3):303. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2016.0434

Sycosis is a medical term that creates confusion in the ancient texts. The term is used for both the description of a skin disease and for trachoma. This Notable Note aims at shedding light on the skin disease defined as sycosis, after the Greek term for “fig” (σύκο)—since its appearance resembles the inner part of the fruit—and presenting the descriptions of ancient authors.

According to Galen (ad 2nd century ), Archigenes (ad 1st century) defined sycosis as exanthemata of the beard, also called mentagra (μανταγρες), or wild lichen, while Heraclides of Tarentum (2nd century bc) described sycosis of the head and beard as having the form of protruding ulcers.1 Galen himself described sycosis as small, hard ulcers appearing on the beard that are composed partly of thick and partly of thin serous humor and ulcerating rapidly if not treated with highly drying medicaments.1 Celsus (ad 1st century) described sycosis as an ulceration of 2 types, both appearing in areas covered by hair: (1) indurated and circular ulceration and (2) moist ulceration with an irregular outline. In the first type, which appears mostly on the beard, there is a scanty and glutinous discharge, while in the second type, which appears mainly on the scalp, the discharge is abundant and malodorous.2 Pliny the Elder (ad 1st century) wrote of an affliction called mentagra in Latin, or lichen in Greek, that affected mainly the upper-class citizens and was dispersed through kissing. Aetius of Amida (ad 5-6th century), Paulus Aegineta (ad 7th century), and Paulus Nicaaensis (circa ad 7th-10th centuries) described as sycosis either infections of the eyelids or “ulcerous excrescences which are round, somewhat hard, red, and accompanied with pain” arising mostly on the head but also on other parts of the body.3

Add or change institution