Oral herpes is believed to have initially appeared at least 2,000 years ago. One of the first known descriptions of an infection that may have been caused by herpes comes from a renowned Greek physician named Herodotus, who lived in the Roman Empire during the 1st century AD. Some scholars even believe William Shakespeare alluded to herpes infections by mentioning “blisters plagues” in his famous play, Romeo and Juliet. However, the word “herpes” was not coined until well after Shakespeare’s death.
The English physician Richard Boulton first used the word “herpes” in his book System of Rational and Practical Chirurgery, which was published in 1713. Later, in 1736, a French physician named John Astruc described a case of genital herpes. Astruc’s work was translated into English in 1754. Shortly afterwards, herpes came to be thought of as a vocational disease that afflicted prostitutes. (A vocational disease is an illness caused by a person’s occupation.)
Despite the fact that physicians and scientists had known of herpes for nearly two millennia, it was not until the 20th century that experiments were conducted to try and determine the exact nature of the disease. Some of the first experiments involved infecting rabbits with herpes. During the 1940s, the cause of herpes was definitively identified as a virus.
A major breakthrough in the history of treating herpes occurred during the 1960s when A.J. Nahmias and W.R. Dowdle reported that oral and genital herpes were caused by different strains of HSV. Medical professionals at the time began experimenting with several antiviral medications to help fight against herpes infections. At first, little progress was made, but by the mid-1970s, the first antiviral therapy for neonatal infection was invented. In 1981, an antiviral drug named acyclovir was approved by the FDA. Acyclovir quickly became one of the most effective drugs used to treat herpes . However, its effectiveness is limited.