Syphilis Sufferers: Judgement or Disease?
Updated: Jun 9
In my previous post, Oh the Humanity: Syphilis and Suffering, we talked about the stigma that made a terribly fatal disease even more painful for its sufferers. Assumptions were made and harsh judgments handed down by society because the disease was spread via sexual contact. But perhaps if we take a look at some famous people who had (or are suspected to have had) this disease, we will confirm that, like many things we stigmatize, a sweeping generalization is hardly ever the best approach.
It is important to note that some of these cases are unconfirmed. Syphilis is known as the 'Great Imitator' as its wide range of symptoms (or lack thereof) can be mistaken for other ailments. Medicine and testing of the time were not as reliable as they are today. Also of note, the stigma attached to the disease would also make hiding the diagnosis/cause of death a priority for the patient and family.
There are definitely some of the very dubious characters in our list :
Henry VIII (1491-1547) - Perhaps one of the most famous degenerates in history, it is likely he passed it on to his children, including his heir, King Edward VI who died young.
Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) - leader of the Nazi party, responsible for millions of deaths and almost universally reviled. Many have postulated that his evil genocidal plots and suicide could be attributed to insanity caused by syphilis he contracted from a prostitute. He actually called it 'The Jewish Disease' and dedicated 13 pages of Mein Kampf to the disease, explaining that eliminating the Jews was vital to the health of the nation.
Al Capone (1899-1947) - notorious gangster extraordinaire during the Prohibition era, released from prison due to his mentality declining to that of a 12-year-old due to complications.
Idi Amin (1925-2003) - the 'Butcher of Uganda' is considered one of the cruelest despots in history. He was charged with failing to obtain treatment for venereal disease and his erratic and cruel behavior may have stemmed from syphilis. Amin fathered as many as 54 children!
Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) - Russian revolutionary - his efforts to replace capitalism with socialism and the redistribution of wealth and harsh dealings with opponents were responsible for many deaths.
(1647-1680) - An outrageous courtier and poet with a sharp tongue and quick wit got him a lot of attention and banishment on multiple occasions. By his own account, he 'was continually drunk and not perfectly master of myself... which led me to do many wild and unaccountable things'. He died at 33, from alcoholism and several STIs, including syphilis. He was played by Johnny Depp in 2004's The Libertine.
Ok, so there are a few that you could maybe make a case for people who were deserving of damnation. However, some of the most celebrated historical figures were also suspected to have had syphilis:
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) and Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) - Abraham Lincoln told his law partner of 18 years that he had been infected with syphilis in 1835 or 1836. It is reported that he took 'little blue pills' (mercury) up until at least a few months after his inauguration in 1861. Mary Todd was unable to tolerate the mercury treatments and the premature death of 3 of their 4 children may be attributed to the disease. Mary Todd suffered from dementia and paralysis and was institutionalized until her death.
Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) - Italian navigator and explorer often credited with 'discovering' the Americas. It is not clear how he died, but symptoms included arthritic pain, mental confusion, and instability, gout, and inflammation of the eyes, consistent with undiagnosed and untreated symptoms of this disease.
There were also many creative artists who contributed to society through art, literature, music, and philosophy:
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - German composer and most famous pianist, who was also known to associate with prostitutes, is another hotly debated case, the great imitator may have been the cause of his deafness and eventual death.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) - German composer and poet of the Romantic era was an artistic child who composed music, poetry, sang, and played several instruments (flute, cello, and piano). He married in 1840, several years after being treated for syphilis, and died in a mental asylum after a suicide attempt and bipolar symptoms that may have been caused by mercury poisoning.
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) - regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time,
received multiple nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature and for the Nobel Peace Prize. Works include War and Peace (1869), Anna Karenina (1877), and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. He was treated with arsenic and presumably cured.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) - German philologist, philosopher, writer, and composer is most famous for his profound thinker and cultural critic whose provocative ideas generated many passionate reactions. Many conclude that madness caused by tertiary syphilis was key to some of his introspective processes.
Karen Blixen (1885-1962) Nobel-nominated (several times) author of Out of Africa, Seven Gothic Tales, and other works under other names (Isak Dinesen). She was diagnosed in Nairobi and prescribed mercury for a year. Later she was found to have mercury poisoning and had a positive Wassermann test and treated with salvarsan.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) - Irish poet and playwright is most famously known for his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and his criminal conviction for gross indecency for consensual homosexual acts.
James Joyce (1882-1941) - Irish author of Ulysses contracted syphilis after visiting 'Nighttown' in Dublin. He had an iridectomy to enlarge a tiny fixed pupil.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) One of the most famous painters ever (and one of my favorites), had been treated for STIs in 1882. Since it is estimated that 10% of all European men had this disease in the late 1800s and he is known to have frequented brothels, it is quite likely he had it. His brother Theo died of tertiary syphilis and after several bouts with mental distress, Vincent died of complications of a gunshot wound, it is debated whether or not it was self-inflicted.
Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) French author, remembered as a master of the short story form, often wrote about life of the lower and middle classes. Boule de suif (Ball of Fat) and La Parure (The Necklace) are probably two you read in high school.
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) - French poet whose most famous volume is Les fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil) had several notebooks that contained addresses of prostitutes. Correspondence date his syphilitic onset to 1839 when he was 18 in Paris.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) - French painter/illustrator/lithographer of the Post-Impressionist period, including creating posters for Moulin Rouge cabaret and painting La Blanchisseuse which fetched $22.4 million at a 2005 Christie's Auction House auction. He was fascinated by the lifestyle of prostitutes and often incorporated them into his works, one of his muses, Rosa La Rouge, reportedly passed along treponema pallidum bacterium to him and he died at age 36 due to complications of this disease and alcoholism.
There are many more famous and infamous cases of syphilis. There are also untold numbers of anonymous patients. People of all classes and dispositions were affected. Patients with syphilis performed both great evil and great beauty that has affected the path of humanity. We may never know how the madness and suffering of syphilis contributed to these acts, but we know that it was not a punishment bestowed upon evildoers, merely a bacterium that was widely spread indiscriminately with often terrible consequences for its host.