A Brief History of Syphilis: The Scourge of Human Intimacy
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
I hope you have read our earlier post on syphilis. It’s a real doozy, but a great primer before we jump into this next one. This post is all about the history of syphilis.
Syphilis is such an interesting disease in our human history. The disease had been around hundreds of years before we knew what the causal agent was.
It has turned countries against each other, killed thousands, maybe even millions, throughout the years, and was the thing that finally took down Al Capone (or so we think).
In WWII, Syphilis even got its own propaganda campaign, warning soldiers of the consequences of a one-night stand.
It has gone by many different names and the resulting disease is quite horrific, so horrific, in fact, people were willing to be poisoned in hopes to get rid of it.
If syphilis didn’t kill you the treatment might!
This week we are talking about the history of Syphilis.
What’s In A Name
There are very few countries that have not been plagued with this disease and its spread of terrible symptoms. It was once known as Grande Verole or the “Great pox”. It was often contracted during the war when soldiers enjoyed the company of the local citizenry and slept with others in the enemy country.
But let’s bring it back a few hundred years, back to when Columbus “discovered” America. Back to the first major outbreak of the disease in 1495, during the war of Naples.
This was not a time of great scientific insight and microbial life was still vastly unseen. Microbiology’s infancy was not until some 400 years later during the 19th century.
So, when this outbreak started during the war, names and blame began to fly. People didn’t know what it was but clearly, the enemy was responsible for the deterioration and death of their soldiers.
The French called it “Disease of Naples,” while the English and Italians called it the “French Disease”. Sometimes it was even called the “Spanish Disease”.
Due to its symptoms resembling that of a ‘pox’ infection, the ‘Great pox’ or “French Pox” was also among its namesakes.
The Germans called it the “French evil,” while the Russians named it after the Polish and the list goes on and on.
Clearly, there was plenty of blame to go around except to the country that contracted it!
Like what we have seen in our recent pandemic, calling something “where” it came from is not helpful in finding a cure, only in alienating nations against each other.
Many of these nations who blamed each other for the disease are still not on good terms. While Syphilis seemed to spread through military travels, it was not a result of war but of love.
The name Syphilis actually comes from a poem entitled Syphilis sive morbus gallicus which is translated to “Syphilis, or the French Disease,” written by an Italian, Girolamo Fracastoro in 1530.
In this poem, Syphilis was a person, a shepherd in fact. He cursed the sun god Apollo for causing a drought in his land making it hard for him to survive. He swore allegiance to his king and turned his back on Apollo forever for not protecting him and his flock.
Apollo, being the kind-hearted god that he is, cursed Syphilis right back by sending a terrible disease to him, which he spread to his hometown, killing the townspeople and even the king.
And so, the disease was named after patient 0: Syphilis, the poor shepherd. Eventually, the townspeople pleaded with Apollo to take the disease away by offering Syphilis, the shepherd, as sacrifice. This obviously didn't work for Syphilis still exists today.
The Origin of Syphilis
There are three prevailing theories of where this disease actually came from. Now, you have to remember that the disease has been around for a long time, since the 15th century, long before microbes were known as the causal agent of diseases, even before the microscope was invented and opened humanity’s eyes to the unseen world. So these are mere theories, the true origin of syphilis will likely never be known.
The first theory is called the Pre-columbian Hypothesis. Yaws, Pinta, and Syphilis, are caused by different Treponema species or subspecies, making them all related diseases. In this theory, all these diseases were could be found globally.
Pinta occurred first in evolutionary time, in the Afo-Asian zone, by 15,000 BC and, like many human ailments, was thought to come from an animal reservoir. After about 5,000 years, through enough mutations, pinta strains mutated and caused Yaws. Over the next several thousand years, as a result of climate changes and human population migration, syphilis and sexually transmitted syphilis emerged.
Next is the Unitarian Hypothesis. The theory is that syphilis was always globally distributed. The theory stated that yaws, syphilis, and pinta are just variants of the same infection, and differences are attributed to geographical and environmental conditions.
In this way, the causal agent of syphilis, Treponema pallidum, responds to the different populations and environments differently causing different symptom manifestations in different human populations.
Finally, there is the Columbus theory. Remember when I told you the first outbreak occurred in 1495? Well, that lines up pretty well with Columbus coming back from the new world. Could Columbus and his men have contracted the disease while in America and spread it to the “old world?”
If this was the case, the disease would have never been seen by the ‘old world,’ making it a painful experience. Furthermore, it would have been extremely virulent, as no one would have had any amount of immunity to it.
The Disease and the Military
From the various names, you can tell the disease followed military personnel as they traveled from brothel to brothel, following the commands of their genitals when they didn’t have to follow the commands of their generals.
By WWI, microbes were the leading cause of disability and absence from duty with the top reason being the 1918 Influenza epidemic (AKA The “Spanish” flu, which you better believe we will cover in the future.) The second leading cause, was venereal diseases which include a handful of diseases, most predominately, Gonorrhea, and syphilis.
In WWII, venereal diseases provoked a huge campaign for which you can see some posters in this post. It's estimated that between 1942-45 over 200,000 soldiers in the U.S. Army contracted syphilis.
The disease itself is a nasty one. Contracted primarily from sex, the first manifestation of the disease is a genital sore or chancre. Foul abscess, ulcers, and severe pain were not uncommon.
The disease can be passed to babies while in the womb, a condition known as congenital syphilis. If you get in tin your eye, you have ocular syphilis, while an infection in the brain and central nervous system is called neurosyphilis.
Left untreated, it leaves the victim disfigured at best and often leads to death.
It’s a full-body experience (the one you probably don’t want to have), with four stages, each exponentially worse than the last. The point is, it was terrible! Furthermore, it’s thought syphilis we have today is not nearly as bad as the syphilis of old, which was thought to be more deadly, more virulent, and extremely painful.
It’s important to understand this because when we discuss the early treatments of the disease, they sound unfathomable. At the time, poisoning oneself, often to the point of death, was better than trying to live with the disease.
Treatments and Diagnosis for Syphilis
So, what did 15th-century medicine come up with to “cure” patients of syphilis?
I’m not kidding. For 200 years, Mercury was the “cure” for syphilis.
They had created a lot of different ways to administer the mercury including ointments, pills, injections, and even fume baths.
They knew full well the mercury was poisoning the victims, sometimes even killing them, and caused complications such as kidney failure, neuropathies, and mouth ulcers.
But the metal also made you salivate and sweat. At the time, it was thought that you could “sweat out” a disease.
And so the phrase “A night with Venus and a lifetime with mercury” was coined. But hey, at least they didn’t have syphilis….?
At any rate, there was one other “cure” they tried which was plant-based. They figured, if Columbus brought this horrible disease from the new world, maybe the new world had a cure for it too. So an elixir made with guaiacum, which is a species of an evergreen tree, was developed. Paracelsus and others soon deemed this ‘treatment’ useless and expensive, making mercury the go-to for syphilis treatment.
Metals do have antibacterial properties, so there is some validity to it, but mercury came with the aforementioned side effects. Scientists experimented with all sorts of other metals including tellurium, vanadium, platinum, and gold, but they were not as effective.
By 1884, a new metal concoction was tried: arsenic mixed with bismuth salts. This treatment was slightly less toxic to humans and a little more to the bacteria. So, it was a step in the right direction but still has some major consequences.
Which brings us to the early 20th century when the tables were finally turned. The world was growing smarter and more sophisticated; we knew of microbes and that they caused some diseases. Now that we could see them, we could really begin to study them.
In 1905 Fritz Richard Schaudin, a German zoologist, and Erich Hoffman, a dermatologist saw the causal agent of syphilis, Treponema pallidum.
This discovery was groundbreaking in the world of syphilis, they finally knew what was causing this disease!
In 1906, Wassermann came out with the Wassermann test to diagnose the disease, significantly increasing its awareness. People could know if they were infected but, like our current covid test, they were not 100% accurate. Hinton upgraded this test, producing something that was even more accurate.
With the microbe identified, scientists could start testing compounds against it to see what killed it, without just blindly experimenting on the ill patients.
In 1909, Paul Ehrlich and Sahachiro Hata found a compound they named 606, as they found it after 606 failed experiments (yes, this is how science works, fail 100s of time….get lucky once.)
They called this new drug the “magic bullet” or Salvarsan.
In 1912, they updated the drug to be even better calling it Neo-salvarsan and the two scientists won the Nobel Prize for their discovery. This drug was not mercury, but it still was derived from a toxic metal, arsenic.
Regardless, it was infinitely better than mercury and quickly became the preferred treatment for syphilis, that is until Penicillin, which was discovered in the 1940s and had very few side effects.
So there you have it, a deadly disease that killed thousands, provoked propaganda campaigns, caused ill-will against warring countries, so terrible it was easier to poison yourself than to live with the disease, cured by the first antibiotic ever discovered.
Still to this day, it’s a disease that impacts humanity.
Luckily, Treponema pallidum remains susceptible to penicillin. It is no longer a disease you have to live with nor do you have to poison yourself to live without it.
This is due largely to accidents, mistakes, and negligence which lead to the discovery of penicillin (more on that story later).
We would like to hear from you! do you know any stories of famous people that had Syphilis or is there something we missed? Let us know and let us know if you liked our blog. You can comment below or send us an email.
Also, if you are interested in more stories about Syphilis, check out some of the links below.
Need More Syphilis?
We Got You Covered!
Pathogen Profile: Treponema pallidum subsp. Pallidum AKA Syphilis
Tuskegee Study: The Unethical Study That Never Should Have Happened
Hinton: First Black Professor at Harvard and developed 2 new Syphilis Tests.
The Horrific History of Syphilis Treatments