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A retrospective diagnosis (also retrodiagnosis or posthumous diagnosis) is the practice of identifying an illness in a historical figure using modern knowledge, methods and disease classifications.[1][2] Alternatively, it can be the more general attempt to give a modern name to an ancient and ill-defined scourge or plague.[3]

Retrospective diagnosis is practised by medical historians, general historians and the media with varying degrees of scholarship. At its worst it may become "little more than a game, with ill-defined rules and little academic credibility."[2] The process often requires "translating between linguistic and conceptual worlds separated by several centuries",[4] and assumes our modern disease concepts and categories are privileged.[4] Crude attempts at retrospective diagnosis fail to be sensitive to historical context, may treat historical and religious records as scientific evidence, or ascribe pathology to behaviours that require none.[5] The understanding of the history of illness can benefit from modern science. For example, knowledge of the insect vectors of malaria and yellow fever can be used to explain the changes in extent of those diseases caused by drainage or urbanisation in historical times.[3]

The term retrospective diagnosis is also sometimes used by a clinical pathologist to describe a medical diagnosis in a person made some time after the original illness has resolved or after death. In such cases, analysis of a physical specimen may yield a confident medical diagnosis. The search for the origin of AIDS has involved posthumous diagnosis of AIDS in people who died decades before the disease was first identified.[6] Another example is where analysis of preserved umbilical cord tissue enables the diagnosis of congenital cytomegalovirus infection in a patient who had later developed a central nervous system disorder.[7]


See alsoEdit


  1. MedTerms: Retrodiagnosis. URL accessed on 2008-08-08.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Elmer, Peter (2004). The healing arts: health, disease and society in Europe, 1500-1800, xv, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Burnham, John C. (2005). What is medical history?, 76–78, Cambridge, UK: Polity.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Kevin P. Siena (2005). Sins of the flesh: responding to sexual disease in early modern Europe, 12, Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies.
  5. Getz, Faye M. Western Medieval Medicine in Greene, Rebecca (1988). History of medicine, New York, NY: Institute for Research in History.
  6. Hooper, E. (1997). Sailors and star-bursts, and the arrival of HIV. BMJ 315 (7123): 1689–1691.
  7. Ikeda S, Tsuru A, Moriuchi M, Moriuchi H (May 2006). Retrospective diagnosis of congenital cytomegalovirus infection using umbilical cord. Pediatr. Neurol. 34 (5): 415–6.

Further readingEdit

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