Syphilis: One of Five Infamous Epidemics We Hope We Never See
I first approached Jason and Mangesh because I wanted to write an article about rare skin diseases. After they finished retching, they said "No, thank you," but invited me to blog on less gruesome forms of weird science. You'll find a smorgasbord of such topics here in the weeks to come, including installments on food science, famous poisons and home inventions. Besides an abiding passion for medical trivia, I'm driven by a sense of wonder at the body, in sickness and in health. I hope you'll weigh in on what else you'd like to read. We begin today with a study of Syphilis, one of Five Infamous Epidemics We Hope We Never See.
A POX UPON YOU: SYPHILIS
"¢ There are popular theories that many famous people suffered syphilis, including Shakespeare, Beethoven, Lincoln, Nietzsche, Lenin, and Hitler, but the evidence is circumstantial in most of these cases. But Al Capone did have syphilis, a doozy of a case, and it got bad while he was in prison. By 1938, the Alcatraz inmate showed many of the classic symptoms: skin lesions, dementia, hallucinations, difficulty standing, seizures, and personality changes.
"¢ The conventional theory on syphilis is that Christopher Columbus and his crew brought it to Europe after sleeping with Native American women in the New World. Wherever it came from, syphilis rocked Europe. By 1700, a quarter of its population had "the great pox."
"¢ Syphilis has a rich history of recrimination—and lots of other names! Because of its association with Columbus, who sailed under Spanish flag, Europeans called it the Spanish disease. The French called syphilis the Neapolitan or Italian disease, because they caught it from residents of Naples, home of a major outbreak. The Russians called it a Polish disease. The Polish called it a Russian disease. The Turks called it a Christian disease. The English called syphilis the French Pox.
"¢ Syphilis was quite common in Shakespeare's England, and his characters often used it as a curse: "A pox o' your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, uncharitable dog!" (The Tempest 1.1.21) or "A pox of your houses" (Romeo and Juliet 3.1.60).
"¢ The conventional treatment for several hundred years was to inhale mercury vapor, which did kill the spirochete that causes syphilis—but it also poisoned the patient.
"¢ From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study in rural Alabama. The idea was to examine the effects of untreated syphilis in 600 African-American men. But in the process, according to the CDC, the men were "never given adequate treatment for their disease." Some of the men weren't even told they had syphilis! The resulting investigation led to laws requiring that patients give their informed consent to participate in a study, but only after researchers must provide certain information to participants before a study begins. This principle now guides medical studies nationwide.
Coming Tomorrow: The Plague.