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was not until the early 19th century that the western world started to look a bit more in-depth into the mental problems that some people were presenting as well as the causes of these problems. One such health problem that was not only affecting people physically but also mentally was cretinism.

You may have heard the word cretin used in terms of describing someone as being stupid which sort of originated from the discovery of cretinism. The word cretin originates from French and it was used in the medieval era by the Catholic monks from France to define people that were “weak-minded” or in other words dumb.

Cretinism as a disease is defined by the thyroid gland which stops the physical and mental growth of a person. The most common physical change is the growth of a massive goiter. Cretinism is seen as more of a long-term development from a very young age, but this wasn’t scientifically proven until 1852.

The history of a nasty mental illness

Although the more precise medical explanation of cretinism was discovered in the 19th century, cretinism has a long history and it has been seen as well as somewhat managed and treated in different ways by different nations. For example, during the early medieval era in Europe, children showcasing a significantly lower level of intelligence or with physical anomalies would be taken to monasteries where they would be grown by monks who would also study their condition.

Some of the monks studying these children suffering from cretinism found a correlation between the level of cretinism within the western population rising with the water level of the sea. The most common characteristics of the disease were endemic goiter, mental retardation, abnormal tongue, and Aspergers.

The disease was most predominant in the Alpine states (Austria, France, Germany, and Switzerland) where contemporary medical researchers had noticed a huge growth in the population affected with cretinism, giving birth to the term “Alpin Cretinism”.

It wasn’t until only the 19th century that the other influential causes of the cretinism endemic were defined by Theodor Kocher who was a Swiss surgeon and a Nobel Laureate. Kocher analyzed the works of previous researchers and came to the conclusion of some of the external factors that can cause or even enhance the effects of cretinism. These are represented in the diagram below.

The major problem seen in modern times was the low level of IQ presented by children with Cretinism. Severe cases would present an IQ level as low as 20, whilst most cases had an average of 45.

Fighting Cretinism

Chinese medics from the Tang Dynasty (618–907) are considered to be the first medics in history to have found a successful treatment for cretinism by feeding them the thyroid gland from animals such as pigs or sheep that would be rich in iodine. The gland would be made into a fine powder and transformed into a pill full of iodine.

In the 16th century, the French monks found their own successful treatment for cretinism which was the ashes from sea fungus, however, sea fungus was quite rare and difficult to farm, therefore, it wasn’t a good treatment. Sometime later, it was found out that the ashes of sea algae contain iodine.

It wasn’t until 1852 when Adolphe Chetan, a French chemist published the first academic paper justifying that the main cause of cretinism is due to the iodine deficiency in children from a very young age which was associated with the physical change of a goiter caused by the thyroid gland.

In 1922, Switzerland was the first country to add iodine to commonly sold salt in order to stop the cretinism endemic and within the 20th century iodine within table salt (normal salt used for food) was integrated on a worldwide level, making cretinism almost extinct. Some parts of the world have made the production of salt without iodine illegal whilst in other more remote parts, natural unprocessed salt is still being used, which ends up producing more cases of cretinism.

One of the most recent cretinism epidemics was in remote parts of China during the 1990sMany children were showing signs of cretinism from a very young age and this was due to the low consumption of salt and in most cases the consumption of unprocessed salt.

The problem really comes down to education as these people living in remote parts do not understand cretinism or they are simply not aware of it, whilst a small population chooses to no belief in this disease.

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