The origins of syphilis may be one of the greatest (and grossest) health mysteries of our time. Some historians claim that Christopher Columbus and his sailors contracted the sexually transmitted disease in the New World and brought it back to Europe. Other experts believe that the disease, which is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, existed in various forms around the globe but was simply misclassified as other conditions. (European writers, including Italian historian Niccolo Squillaci, first described syphilis in the late 15th century.) And in 2015, researchers announced that they had identified signs of congenital syphilis in 14th-century skeletons from St. Polten, Austria, adding new evidence to an age-old debate.
One thing's for sure: As the map below illustrates, nobody wanted to take credit for originating the virulent condition. Created by Reddit user masiakasaurus (and spotted by The A.V. Club), the map illustrates the various nicknames Europeans gave the disease before the name syphilis caught on. (Italian physician and poet Hieronymus Fracastorius coined the word in 1530 with his poem "Syphilis Sive Morbus Gallicus"—"Syphilis or the French Disease.") Not surprisingly, nearly every single moniker places blame on another group for giving birth to what by then had become a continental scourge.
“Most physicians felt that this was a new disease, that it hadn’t been seen before in Europe, and that view tended to prevail for quite some time,” medical historian John Parascandola told The Atlantic. “There were certain tempting reasons for people to accept that—blame it on the others, blame it on the outsiders. Before that, the French were blaming it on the Italians, the Italians were blaming it on the French, et cetera.”
Masiakasaurus sourced the syphilis nicknames from nine scholarly books/journals, including The Early History of Syphilis: A Reappraisal,The rise and fall of sexually transmitted diseases in Sweden, and A Medical History of Persia and the Eastern Caliphate: From the Earliest Times Until the Year A.D. 1932. You can view the full list on Reddit—after giving silent thanks to Alexander Fleming for discovering penicillin, found to be an effective cure for syphilis in 1943.
[h/t The A.V. Club]