STD Awareness: The History of Syphilis

Have you ever heard that syphilis originated in the New World, and was imported to Europe by unwitting explorers? Some say it’s a fitting revenge for Europeans, who brought deadly diseases like smallpox and measles to the Americas. Others say that, while it’s an interesting hypothesis, it’s mostly speculation backed by some intriguing circumstantial evidence.

The predominating theory of syphilis’ origin is that it was transmitted from the Americas to Europe via sailors on Christopher Columbus’ ships — sailors who, in addition to other horrific acts, probably raped the natives of Hispaniola, from whom they could have contracted the infection. Historical records show that syphilis popped up in Europe in the last decade of the 1400s, coinciding with the return of Columbus and his crew — when Europe was deeply mired in war. With war came the far and wide travel of troops, who could have introduced the pathogen to prostitutes and other members of local populations.

In the era before antibiotics, syphilis was the world’s most feared sexually transmitted disease.

But we don’t know for certain that Columbus’ crew brought syphilis back from the West Indies in 1493. Some scholars point to ancient writings, from Biblical texts to Chinese records, that contain descriptions of diseases that are consistent with syphilis — though they might merely have described tuberculosis or leprosy. There are also pre-Columbian skeletons from Europe, Africa, and Asia that seem to exhibit evidence of syphilis infection — though diagnosing syphilis based on bone samples is problematic at best. Is it possible that syphilis had existed in the Old World all along, but didn’t become an epidemic until the wars of the Renaissance era allowed syphilis to conquer the continent?

Or perhaps the New World was home to a mild strain of the disease that mutated once it hit European soil. One team of researchers, studying Guyana’s remote Akwio tribe, discovered a disease that was a lot like syphilis, but was not an STD — it spread by skin-to-skin contact and infected about 1 in 20 children. Genetic analysis showed that it was caused by a bacteria that was closely related to the same bug that causes syphilis. Could Columbus’ men have picked up this transitional strain of bacteria and brought it back to Europe, where it mutated to evolve into the virulent pathogen we know today?

Regardless of its origin, when syphilis broke out across Europe, pretty much everyone pointed their fingers at one another to assign blame. Germans and Italians called it “the French disease”; the French called it “the Italian disease”; the Dutch called it “the Spanish disease”; the Russians called it “the Polish disease”; and the Turks called it “the Christian disease.” Eventually, it was christened syphilis, after a character in a poem written in 1530.

Some of the earliest European records of syphilis describe dark green, stinking boils the size of acorns, flesh falling off the body to expose the bone underneath, and and a higher and faster fatality rate. Some say that the pancake makeup and false beauty marks exemplified by the rococo period were an elaborate way for people to hide the boils, scars, and other disfigurements caused by diseases like syphilis. Today’s syphilis doesn’t kill as quickly, and its symptoms aren’t as dramatic. Surprisingly, it’s typical for a disease to become less virulent over time — it makes evolutionary sense, given that a sexually transmitted pathogen has more opportunities to find new hosts if sufferers live longer and aren’t riddled with large boils or emitting an off-putting aroma.

In any case, syphilis might have killed millions of people across the European continent. Husbands could have come home from brothels to give syphilis to their wives, who in turn could transmit it to their babies — either in the womb or through breastfeeding. There was no effective cure, so as the epidemic grew, the physicians of the time tried their best to treat the disease. Before the 20th century, the most popular treatment was mercury. In Italy, “antivenereal underpants” with a mercury-based ointment spread inside were available. By Lewis and Clark’s expedition in the 1800s, the explorers carried a variety of mercury-based syphilis drugs, along with a specialized syringe that injected a lead tincture into the urethra. Unfortunately, not only was mercury ineffective in curing syphilis, it was toxic and had horrible, sometimes fatal, side effects.

A hundred years ago, an arsenic-based drug called Salvarsan (and an improved version called Neosalvarsan) represented a huge improvement in syphilis’ treatment, but it wasn’t until the discovery of antibiotics that syphilis could be reliably cured. When penicillin came on the scene in the 1940s, some experts thought syphilis would soon be relegated to the annals of history. But, while syphilis rates have plummeted in the decades since, it’s still with us — and recently has even started to make a comeback. It’s still important to practice safer sex and get screened regularly for STDs, for instance at a Planned Parenthood health center. Although it’s curable these days, it’s still important to catch syphilis in its early stages, as any damage it does to your body is irreversible.

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