Protean nature of mass sociogenic illness: from possessed nuns to chemical and biological terrorism fears

Br J Psychiatry. 2002 Apr;180:300-6. doi: 10.1192/bjp.180.4.300.


Background: Episodes of mass sociogenic illness are becoming increasingly recognised as a significant health and social problem that is more common than is presently reported.

Aims: To provide historical continuity with contemporary episodes of mass sociogenic illness in order to gain a broader transcultural and transhistorical understanding of this complex, protean phenomenon.

Method: Literature survey to identify historical trends.

Results: Mass sociogenic illness mirrors prominent social concerns, changing in relation to context and circumstance. Prior to 1900, reports are dominated by episodes of motor symptoms typified by dissociation, histrionics and psychomotor agitation incubated in an environment of preexisting tension. Twentieth-century reports feature anxiety symptoms that are triggered by sudden exposure to an anxiety-generating agent, most commonly an innocuous odour or food poisoning rumours. From the early 1980s to the present there has been an increasing presence of chemical and biological terrorism themes, climaxing in a sudden shift since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA.

Conclusions: A broad understanding of the history of mass sociogenic illness and a knowledge of episode characteristics are useful in the more rapid recognition and treatment of outbreaks.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / adverse effects
  • Anxiety / complications
  • Anxiety / history
  • Disease Outbreaks* / history
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • Hysteria / physiopathology
  • Hysteria / psychology
  • Mass Behavior*
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / epidemiology
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / etiology
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / history*
  • Terrorism / psychology
  • Warfare


  • Air Pollutants