History Of Herpes: Where Did It Come From?

Here is an interesting fact – some of the most famous writers in the world spoke of herpes a long time ago, even Shakespeare.  In his famous Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare says: ”O’er ladies lips, who straight on kisses dream, which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues, because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are.”

According to researchers, the infection was prevalent and dates back to ancient Greece, when Hippocrates described the spreading of its lesions.

And not only that. Writings from scholars of the Greek civilization have even defined the word ‘herpes’ as ‘to creep or crawl’, in reference to the way the disease spreads on the body.

Herpes Simplex Recognized

Even though herpes dates back years and even centuries ago, it was in 1893 when Vidal defined and recognized the transmission of this infection from one person to another. Following this discovery, scientists started actively researching the herpes simplex virus. During the 20th century, the research blossomed when scientists defined the giant multinucleated cells associated with this infection.

Later on, in 1919, the scientist Lowenstein confirmed what Shakespeare originally suspected – that the herpes is an infectious disease. After this, scientists started studying the natural history of the virus and in the 1920’s and 1930’s, they discovered that the virus affects the nervous system, too.

Latency was characterized in the 1930’s when scientists examined the host immune responses to this virus. By the 1950’s, research continued and revealed a lot about the many diseases primarily caused by HSV. This was the beginning of the discoveries regarding treatment and antiviral research, HSV vectors and vaccines, etc.

Varicella-Zoster Virus

Same as the Herpes Simplex, the Varicella-Zoster Virus can also be dated far in the history. However, this type of herpes is often mistaken with the small pox due to the similarity of the marks.

Heberden established a certain way to differentiate between the two in the late eighteenth century. It was only in 1888 that von Bokay suggested that both the chickenpox and herpes zoster are caused by the same causal agent, while this connection was confirmed by Weller and Stoddard later on.

Epstein-Barr Virus

Unlike the case with the previous two strains, the Epstein-Barr virus has been discovered only recently. Scientists called Epstein and Barr isolated particles of a virus from lymphoblastoid cell lines from the Burkitt’s lymphoma in 1964. This virus was then named after them and became known as the Epstein-Barr virus.

Since its discovery, this virus is known to be the predominant cause of cancer in man. It is known to play a huge role in nasopharyngeal carcinoma, Burkitt’s Lymphoma and B cell lymphomas.


Cytomegalovirus was also identified recently, found in patients who suffered from congenital cytomegalic inclusion disease. The research is ongoing, but at this point, we understand this isolation as asymptomatic in the immunocompetant patients. And even though the virus is distributed worldwide at this point, only few people will experience the symptoms. This is probably why CMV was not recognized for so long.

Herpes Originates in Chimpanzees?

According to researchers in the University of California, the virus herpes infected chimpanzees back 1.6 million years ago!

Researchers at the San Diego School of Medicine identified the origins of the herpes simplex virus back 1.6 million years ago. According to this research, HSV 1 infected chimpanzees in the past, even when hominids have not split in chimpanzees 6 million years ago. After that, the virus spread to chimpanzees, then to our ancestors, and finally to us humans, or homo erectus.

You can find these findings in the online issue of June 10 in Molecular Biology and Evolution. The leading author of this study and assistant research scientist at the San Diego Research Center, Joel O. Wertheim says ‘ “Animal disease reservoirs are extremely important for global public health. Understanding where our viruses come from will help guide us in preventing future viruses from making the jump into humans.”

In addition to this, Wertheim says: “Humans are the only primates we know of that have two herpes simplex viruses. We wanted to determine why.”

This study also compared the two strains of HSV – HSV-1 and HSV-2 to the simplex viruses three from ape host and eight monkey species. By doing this, scientists estimated the divergence time of the virus, and also determined to achieve higher precision than any other model used. This comparison allowed them to check the time when the virus was introduced into the human population.

Both primate and human herpes viruses were examined in terms of genetics in order to check their similarities and differences. This lead to the discovery that the virus HSV-1 was present long before the HSV-2 virus. This prompted scientists to further research the origins of the second HSV strain in humans.

From the viral family tree of the apes and monkeys, researchers showed that the second virus was more similar to that found in chimpanzees. Wertheim says: “Comparing virus gene sequences gives us insight into viral pathogens that have been infecting us since before we were humans”. This indicates that humans got the HSV-2 virus from modern chimpanzees or ancestor chimpanzees approximately 1.6 million years ago, which is much earlier than originally thought.

At this point, the number of infected humans is approximately two thirds of the total population. The virus comes in the form of cold sores on the lips and mouth, or blisters on the genitals of the herpes-infected person. And even though herpes dates millions of years ago, medicine still has not found a cure for this disease.


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