The Story of Syphilis

The arrival of the Spanish to the Americas was one of the greatest catastrophes ever experienced by any society as the indigenous population of at least 50 million people was almost totally wiped out within a century. The Spanish were cruel, certainly – upon first contact with the natives in the Bahamas, Columbus noted in his diary how They offered to share with anyone and when you ask for something, they never say no,” he promptly set about enslaving them to mine gold and killed and tortured anyone who thought to protest.

story of syphillis

Poor guy

But as much as gunpowder and steel allowed the Spanish all the power of gods – as the locals at first imagined them to be – it was the invisible weapons that effected the worst genocide in history: typhus, cholera, malaria, the plague and in particular, smallpox, swept through the Americas, killing around 80% of those who lived there.

But it was a sword that cut both ways.

The conquest of the Americas changed the world forever and the first effects were seen in the wonderful things that Colombus brought back with him: marvels like tobacco, cocoa beans, potatoes, and tomatoes. The arrival of the tomato to Napoli is probably still celebrated as a national holiday in Italy but in 1495, just two years after Colombus returned to Europe, they were rather more preoccupied with another of his imports: syphillis.

The Spanish sailors, of course, saw themselves free to take any woman they wanted and in the process ensured the spread of one of history´s worst sexually transmitted diseases. First mention of syphillis is made in the French soldiers who contracted it while at war with Napoli and the disease was frequently lethal as it literally ate the flesh from their bodies, sometimes down to the bone. They quickly decided to call it the Ítalian disease´, while the Italians called it the `French disease´. The Russians knew it as the ´Polish disease´, while in Turkey it was called the `Christian disease´and so on around the world, in the time old tradition of blaming one´s neighbours for everything bad that happens to you.

Soldiers were especially prone to catching syphilis as the cheap prostitutes were about the only positive thing about war and as one rather forward-thinking doctor of the time noted, ´Men get it by doing it with women in their vulvas´. No one listened to this crackpot, however, and instead interested themselves more in the astrological alignments of the planets to determine the cause. Others believed it was a plague sent by God to punish humanity for its immoral ways – after all, those who slept with prostitutes were more likely to get it. When all else failed, it was blamed on witches.

It was even thought by some that masturbation was responsible – it was certainly sinful and as the innovator John Kellog, noted: ´The masturbator dies by his own hand.´The 19th century saw a flood of anti-masturbation devices ranging from bent metal sheatbs to spiky clamps that would make any kind of erection unbearably painful. John Kellogg himself invented a kind of wire to be sewn through the foreskin but, recognizing that it was unlikely to be too popular, he hit instead on another theory that a high-fibre, low-sugar diet would reduce the sinful urges to lust in the first place. Thus was born that famous recipe for celibacy which many of you may have tried: Kellogg´s Cornflakes.

But back to syphillis.

Syphillis was truly a terrible thing to catch as ulcers spread all over our body, sometimes eating away into the brain and causing madness. It wasn´t uncommon for the nose to drop off, starting a fashion for false noses made from ceramic and wood. There was even briefly a period of ´no-nose´societies where the afflicted might gathered together in brotherhood. Syphillis might even claim to be the origin of reconstructive surgery as one physician found that he could graft a piece of skin from the arm to the nose – though it meant having your arm tied to your nose for several weeks until a second operation to separate the two could be performed.

Syphilis struck the poor and rich alike and while it could be passed on through childbirth or mother´s milk, sex was usually the way it was caught – which proved problematic for the priests, cardinals and even a pope who found himself wearing the purple flowers of syphillis ulcers on the face – a telling confession that they hadn´t quite kept to their vows.

Luckily modern medicine was there to help. Doctors in the old days seemed to only believe in remedies that hurt a great deal and so syhillitic ulcers were cut away, burned off, treated with strong acids – all to little effect but at least the patient felt like he had got his money´s worth. A popular treatment was to stick the patient´s head in a box with some mercury and a fire lit below it would cause the mercury to vaporize. The popular saying of the time was that ‘a night with Venus led to a lifetime with Mercury’. The doctors weren’t completely off the mark as mercury was effective in the short-term at least but unfortunately it was also highly poisonous.

Another cure which was almost as bad as the disease was found by an Austrian scientist who won a Nobel Prize for proving that syphilis could be cured by infecting people with malaria. The high fevers they suffered killed the syphillis bacteria outright. But then you had malaria…

All good things come to and end, however. In 1940 a rather more effective cure was found in with the discovery of penicillin which spoiled all the fun and meant that anyone with access to a pharmacy could be cured of syphillis once and for all. Of course, for 12 million people who still contract syphilllis each year in the developing world, that’s still something of a challenge…

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