Diphtheria takes its name from the Greek word dipthera meaning leather and was named in 1826 by French physician Pierre Bretonneau. This is because it refers to the leathery, sheath-like membrane that grows on the tonsils, throat and in the nose. It was previously considered to be one of the most dreaded diseases, with frequent large-scale outbreaks in the New England colonies between 1735 and 1740. It was said that the disease killed as many as 80% of the children below 10 years of age.
Diphtheria is otherwise called the 'Strangling Angel of Children' and was a dreaded common childhood illness. Statistics shows that in the 1920s there were an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 cases of diphtheria per year in the United States, with 13,000 to 15,000 deaths.
Effective vaccines were not developed until the discovery and development of sulfa drugs following World War II. But now it has re-emerged in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union and in some other parts of the world at near-epidemic levels. The increases have generally been the result of failed public health and immunization programs in areas weakened by economic and social turmoil.