Did you know that Pythagoras (570-495 AD) was aware of the dangers of ‘favism’?

By Shaun Richard McCann

Did you know that Pythagoras was aware of the dangers of ‘favism’ long before the biochemistry and genetics of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) were unraveled? Pythagoras was a famous Greek philosopher and mathematician. Although well-known for his eponymous theorem, known to every school boy and girl, he also inadvertently contributed to hematology. He was born on the island of Samos but migrated to southern Italy at an early age. He was the instigator of a sect known as Pythagoreanism. He was familiar with the condition known as ‘favism’ where people with a genetic variant or deficiency of the enzyme, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD), found in parts of Africa and in Mediterranean areas, experience severe hemolysis when exposed to fava beans (broad beans), presumably secondary to oxidative stress. The disorder is X-linked and therefore is only manifest in males. Although Pythagoras was unaware of the existence of red blood cells, let alone erythrocyte physiology or human genetics, he had enough insight to forbid his followers (all male) to eat fava beans. Pythagoras was killed by his enemies from Crotona (near Taranto, southern Italy), because he refused to cross a field of fava beans.

G6PD deficiency is rarely described in western Europe but can occur sporadically. Unlike the varieties found in the Mediterranean basin, people in western Europe suffer from chronic hemolysis in the absence of external oxidative stress.

Pythagoras. (570-495 BC). Greek philosopher and mathematician. Fresco by Raphael, (1483-1520 AD). School of Athens. Vatican museum, Rome, Italy. Public Domain.

Read more:

Meletis J. Favism. A brief history from ‘abstain from beans’ of Pythagoras to the present. Arch. Hell. Med. 2012;29:258-263.

McCann S R, Smithwick A M, Temperley I J, Tipton K. G6PD (DUBLIN): chronic non-spherocytic haemolytic anaemia resulting from glucose- 6 phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency in Irish kindred. J Med Genet. 1980;17:191-193.