The Other PandemicOn March 25, 2020 by Elyse
Sick and tired of worrying about coronavirus making you sick and tired? If you’ve had it with wall-to-wall COVID-19 coverage, Second Glance History is happy to distract you with another horrific disease to fixate on: kyphosis bicyclistarum. You’re welcome.
I’m surely not the only one consulting WebMD more frequently of late. However, while we’re bombarded with coronavirus news at every click, it’s nearly impossible to find accurate information about kyphosis bicyclistarum. It’s almost as if it’s a made-up disease no one takes seriously. . .
In order to fight this “serious menace to the well-being of the rising generation,” I’ve pulled together the latest research from the most reliable sources—the always impartial 19th-century newspapers. Educate yourself on the symptoms of this muscle disorder and learn how you can prevent it from afflicting you and your loved ones.
Physicians are now very generally turning their attention to the bicycle craze. They think they see in it a serious menace to the well-being of the rising generation. It has been the origin of a new form of disease, which they denominate kyphosis bicyclistarum, which, being rendered into plain, everyday American, means the bicyclist’s stoop.
The acquirement of this stoop, they tell us, is not a mere matter of habit, which, with ordinary watchfulness, may be guarded against or thrown off at pleasure. It is a real disease, the evolution of which is likely to give us a round-shouldered, hunchbacked race in the near future.– The Western Kansas World, September 30, 1893
As if we weren’t already living in an apocalyptic nightmare, now, we can look forward to “a round-shouldered, hunchbacked race.”
In less clinical language:
Kyphosis bicyclistarum is hard to say, in fact to some persons it is almost unspeakable. So is the thing for which it stands—“bicycle-riders’ stoop.” It is a deformity that obtrudes itself upon the outraged sight at every hour and at every turning.
Its victims are not confined to the toad-like, humped-up animals called “scorchers” that go tearing through the streets, threatening the lives of pedestrians; it cuts a swath of affliction as far as the eye can see.– The Weekly Pantagraph, July 7, 1893
I couldn’t pick a favorite rant:
There is no canon of art under which such a name as “kyphosis bicyclistarum” can be considered beautiful, says the New York Tribune. Speak it as you will, it is an offense to tongue and ear.
But that very fact demonstrates its fitness for existence and for use. An ugly thing should have an ugly name. And if human perversity has invented anything much uglier than that for which this verbal cacophony stands, the fact is not recorded in the annals of the closing century. . .
“Kyphosis bicyclistarum,” then, being interpreted, is “bicycle-rider’s stoop” and what that is none but the blind will ask.– The Record-Union, August 12, 1893
Kyphosis bicyclistarum patients bring it upon themselves by being overly competitive:
What [the doctors] complain of is that the ambition of the average bicyclist of the day is not the securing of health nor the enjoyment of outdoor exercise, but the attainment of such proficiency and speed in the working of the machine as will make its owner conspicuous among his fellows. This is a record-breaking age, and nowhere has this record-breaking mania taken a firmer hold than among the bicyclists of the day, both professional and amateur.– The Western Kansas World, September 30, 1893
. . . Or by being men:
The secret of the evil probably lies in general proneness of the masculine spine toward relaxation. Observe any number of average men sitting on benches that have no backs. How many of them are erect, or, rather, how few?
Their backs are bowed, their shoulders droop forward, they seem to emulate the attitude of frogs. And so they do when they get upon bicycles, and thus give to the world “kyphosis bicyclistarum”—the name and the disease. By all means, out upon it!– The Record-Union, August 12, 1893
If you find yourself inexplicably becoming a dinosaur, you may have kyphosis bicyclistarum:
Why is it that as soon as a young man learns the useful and graceful art of bicycle riding he must forthwith attempt to undo the work by which he was made the image of his Maker and seek to transform himself into a hideous mesozoic dinosaur or some other uncanny creeping thing? The head goes down, the back is humped, the arms assume the position of forelegs, and all that is wanting is a croak to pass for a broken-backed frog. This is not wild exaggeration.
Are you sure about that?
There is no uglier object outside of a freak museum than even the handsomest youth bending in colicky curvature over the steering bar. It is to esthetics what blasphemy is to religion.– The Weekly Pantagraph, July 7, 1893
As if being an “uncanny, creeping thing” wasn’t enough, the disease can also be fatal:
The bent position which is assumed by bicyclists, in order to secure the greatest amount of power over their machines and to attain the highest degree of speed while running them, is attended with an unnatural flexion of the spine which appears in the region of the back and causes not only unsightliness in form but in boys of fourteen years and under is fraught with serious and possibly fatal consequences.
In those over that age the result of the stoop is to produce permanent curvature of the spine and consequent deformity. It has also malign effects on the heart, lungs and other vital organs.– The Western Kansas World, September 30, 1893
Treatment and Prevention
In the 1890s, public shame was the single best way to both cure and prevent kyphosis bicyclistarum:
There is no excuse for this abomination. An erect attitude gives the rider a much better command of the wheel. It is merely a habit due to too much pernicious and unhealthy “scorching.” Women who ride wheels do not stoop. Out upon this frog-squat, this hump-backed disease “kyphosis bicyclistarum!”– The Weekly Pantagraph, July 7, 1893
To squat humped up befits the tramp on the park bench. But the energetic young athlete, riding his steed of steel, should remember that he has muscles in his back, as well as in the calves of his legs. Shoulders back! Chest forward! Eyes front! No “kyphosis bicyclistarum!”– The Record-Union, August 12, 1893
The medical community’s stance on kyphosis bicyclistarum has evolved in the last century. Today, health care professionals recommend not public shaming or even good posture. Instead, they prescribe social isolation. If you don’t venture outside into the germ-filled world, you won’t ride your bicycle and become “a wretched travesty of Quasimodo.”
The young and old alike are urged to stay inside, parked on their couches. However, while binging on junk food and equally junky television, be sure to keep your shoulders back—or else, you’re at risk of developing kyphosis Netflixarum.
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Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above sources. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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Welcome to Second Glance History! This blog seeks to uncover the people and the stories forgotten by history and give them another read through a modern lens. Join me every week as we examine the differences that divide and the common threads that connect the then to the now.