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Learning from the past
Hidden stories in old medical records

  • There are old medical records, known in Japanese as karute, from the German word Karte (card). The German word was used because Japan chose to learn medical science from Germany during the Meiji period (1868–1912).
  • Here at the NCGM, you can find Meiji-era Karte containing the “history of disease” over the course of Japan’s modernization. Looking at Karte from the Meiji and Taisho periods reveals many cases of contagious diseases, such as typhoid, tuberculosis, and Spanish flu; these illnesses remain prevalent in developing countries today.
  • Contagious diseases that spread worldwide pose a problem for developed countries as well, as was the case with the Spanish flu outbreak that started in 1918 and resulted in 20 to 40 million deaths. (Some estimates are as high as 50 to 100 million). It also spread to Japan, infecting 23 million people and killing 380,000. The records show that NCGM took on the Spanish flu epidemic.
  • Other records show cases of people being kicked in the face by a horse; beriberi (vitamin B1 deficiency); stomach ulcers; and mitral regurgitation, a type of heart disease that was probably not treatable at the time.
  • During Mori Ōgai’s tenure as military surgeon general, he eschewed the “nutritional cause” theory on beriberi that was widespread in Britain. Instead, he agreed with the German consensus that the disease was caused by bacteria. It is said that beriberi spread among soldiers in Japan because white rice was their staple food.
  • The novelist Natsume Sōseki, who had a house near the NCGM (which is, today, the site of a monument dedicated to him), allegedly died of a stomach ulcer. These are the kinds of historical diseases that can be discovered in the old Karte.