Ringworm is a type of fungal skin infection that affects people, pets and livestock. It is not caused by a worm, but by a fungus that leaves a ring shaped mark on the skin. Ringworm has been a nuisance for centuries, but effective and safe treatments were only made available in the 20th century.
Turmeric was a favorite ancient treatment for ringworm. This method, favored during the Vedic period in Indian history, is still used by some sufferers today. The Vedic period lasted from about the 1st century BCE to the 6th Century BCE. The afflicted would mix a small amount of turmeric (about a teaspoon) with honey to taste, and consume this mixture. Turmeric juice would be applied directly to the site of infection. Tea tree oil was used in Australia to treat ringworm, and remains a popular holistic remedy.
Ringworm was so prevalent that it even inspired works of art. The French painter Isidore Alexandre Augustin Pils painted a work called "The Prayer of the Children Suffering from Ringworm" in 1853. Pils was born in 1813 and died in 1875. During this period, western Europeans had no effective medicines to treat the ringworm menace, and the impoverished denizens of major cities were often completely without treatment. Children suffered especially from ringworm, in that they were often rounded up and shipped off to schools populated entirely with ringworm-riddled children, making the chance of re-infection that much higher.
In the 1800s
According to a publication from the University of Illinois' College of Veterinary Medicine (see References), in the 1800s, the primary way the fungus spread from person to person was on theatre seat cushions, schoolchildren, or barbers. Barbers could easily spread the fungus from one person's head to the next because their scissors and razors were not placed in a sanitizing solution between clients. Over time, it became apparent to doctors that people without hair recovered more quickly, so one common treatment was plucking each hair out, or removing them all at once with a plaster that was ripped off.
One notable work on ringworm produced during this era was "The cultivation and life-history of the ringworm fungus (Trichophyton tonsurans)" by Sir Malcolm Alexander Morris. The book was printed in London in 1883. Morris was a noted health writer of the era. His other works included "Diseases of the Skin" and "The Story of English Public Health".
The 20th Century
In the early 20th century, measures for dealing with ringworm became draconian. London schoolchildren were routinely sent to special "ringworm" schools to prevent the spread of the disease. At these schools, many were treated with x-ray therapy which ultimately killed them. While the x-ray treatment was effective in killing the fungus, the high doses of x-rays proved toxic.
The Wood's Lamp, used to diagnose ringworm, was developed by Robert Williams Wood in 1903, but wasn't used by dermatologists until a few decades later.