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.

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"¢ 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.

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Coming Tomorrow: The Plague.