Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: December 2009



Diseases caused by the human herpesviruses were recognized by the earliest practitioners of medicine. Hippocrates, Celsus, Herodotus, Galen, Avicenna and others described cutaneous lesions typical of infections caused by herpes simplex viruses (HSV) 1 and 2, and varicella-zoster virus (VZV). ‘Herpes,’ the family name of these viruses, is traced to the Greek term for lesions that appeared to creep or crawl over the skin. Among the duties of John Astruc, physician to King Louis XIV, was to understand the diseases of French prostitutes, in Latin, the ‘Puellae publicae’, which led to his description of herpes genitalis. Distinguishing between genital herpes and syphilis was an obvious concern in this social context as it is now. The modern scientific investigation of HSV can be dated to the work of Gruter, who first isolated the virus and demonstrated its serial transmission in rabbits. During the 19th century, experiments in human subjects showed that HSV and VZV could be transmitted from fluid recovered from HSV and VZV lesions. Demonstrating that Koch's posulates were fulfilled was important but arguably the truly revolutionary discovery about the herpesviruses was made by Andrews and Carmichael in the 1930s who showed that recurrent herpes labialis occurred only in adults who already had neutralizing antibodies against HSV.