Syphilis History

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History has suggested that syphilis is a disease of early times. The disease might have been prevalent among the indigenous peoples of the Americas before Europeans travelled to and from the New World.

“Pre-Columbian theory”

The "pre-Columbian theory" holds that syphilis was present in Europe before the discovery of the Americas by Europeans. The disease is described by Hippocrates in Classical Greece in its venereal/tertiary form.

There are other suspected syphilis findings for pre-contact Europe, including at a 13–14th century Augustinian friary in the north eastern English port of Kingston upon Hull. This city's maritime history, with its continual arrival of sailors from distant places, is thought to have been a key factor in the transmission of syphilis.

The “French disease”

Some historians believe that the disease first made its appearance in the French troops besieging Naples and Italians called it morbus gallicus (‘French disease’). On the other hand the French preferred to call it the ‘Neapolitan disease’ or a disease from the Naples.

Syphilis - the “social disease”

References to the disease are present in history with many well-known persons succumbing to it. It was termed a social evil and both Syphilis and gonorrhea were “social diseases,” and the effort to combat them was the “social hygiene” movement. “Social evil” meant prostitution.

Early 1900’s

In 1911 California became the first state to require physicians to report cases of venereal disease and that, to assure confidentiality.

In 1913, Hideyo Noguchi, a Japanese scientist, demonstrated the presence of the spirochete ''Treponema pallidum'' in the brain of a progressive paralysis patient, proving that ''Treponema pallidum'' was the cause of the disease. Without its cause being understood, syphilis before this time was sometimes misdiagnosed and often misattributed to damage by political enemies. Mental illness caused by late-stage syphilis was once one of the more common forms of dementia. This was known as the general paresis of the insane.

Tuskegee Study

Between 1932–1972, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted what became known as the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (also known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study or the Tuskegee Experiment). It was a clinical study, conducted in Tuskegee.

Nearly 400 poor, mostly illiterate, African-American men with syphilis were systematically and intentionally denied effective treatment so that researchers could observe the natural progression of the disease when left untreated. This unethical behavior raised severe controversy and eventually led to major changes in how patients are protected in clinical studies.

By 1953 the Eisenhower administration proposed eliminating the social hygienists and their PHS (Public health service) venereal disease program since they felt their job was essentially done. But syphilis along with other sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea, herpes, chlamydia, and AIDS returned.

History of diagnosis

Syphilis was effectively diagnosed first using a test in 1906. This was called the Wassermann test. It did yield a few false positive results but was a major advance in the prevention of syphilis. By allowing testing before the acute symptoms of the disease had developed, this test allowed the prevention of transmission of syphilis to others.

This was followed by the Hinton test, developed by William Augustus Hinton in 1930’s. This was based on the principle of flocculation and showed fewer false positive reactions than the Wassermann test. Both of these early tests have been superseded by newer analytical methods.

History of syphilis treatment

Earlier syphilis was untreatable and usually progressed to its later stages. The Spanish priest Francisco Delicado in 1525 wrote about the use of ''Guaiacum'' in the treatment of syphilis.

Another common remedy was mercury. This gave rise to the saying, “A night in the arms of Venus leads to a lifetime on Mercury.” Mercury was taken orally or by injection or by rubbing over the skin. Another way was to fumigate the infected person in a box filled with mercury fumes with his head sticking out. References to mercury use for syphilis dates back to ''The Canon of Medicine'' (1025) by the Persian physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Giorgio Sommariva of Verona is recorded to have used it for this purpose in 1496.

The first antibiotic to be used for treating disease was the arsenic-containing drug Salvarsan, developed in 1908 by Sahachiro Hata while working in the laboratory of Nobel prize winner Paul Ehrlich. This was later modified into Neosalvarsan. This was not fully effective especially in tertiary stages.

These treatments were finally rendered obsolete by the discovery of penicillin, and its widespread manufacture after World War II.

Notable syphilis-infected people in history

Keys: S—suspected case; —died of syphilis

  • Endre Ady (1877-1919), Hungarian poet †
  • Maurice Barrymore (1849–1905) actor †
  • John Batman (1801–1839), founder of Melbourne †
  • Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), poet †
  • Karen Blixen (1885–1962), writer
  • Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage (1765–1805), poet †
  • Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), emperor of France S
  • António Botto (1897–1959), poet
  • Camilo Castelo Branco (1825–1890), writer
  • Beau Brummell (1778–1840), fashion arbiter
  • Al Capone (1899–1947), gangster †
  • Henry Stuart (1545–1567), second husband of Mary Queen of Scots
  • Frederick Delius (1862–1934), composer †
  • Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848), composer
  • Bedřich Smetana (1824–1884), composer †
  • Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), painter †
  • Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), poet †
  • Henry VIII (1491–1547), king of England S
  • Ivan the Terrible (1530–1584), Czar of Russia
  • Scott Joplin (1867/8–1917), composer †
  • John Keats (1795–1821), poet S
  • William Lobb (1809–1864), plant collector S
  • Édouard Manet (1832–1883), painter †
  • Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893), writer †
  • Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), philosopher S
  • Jack Pickford (1896–1933), actor †
  • Martin Alonso Pinzon (1441–1493) captain of ''Pinta'' †
  • Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), writer S
  • Theo van Gogh (1857–1891), art dealer †
  • Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), painter S
  • Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), writer S
  • Eugen Sandow (1867–1925), bodybuilder S
  • Franz Schubert (1797–1828), composer S
  • Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901), painter †
  • John Wilmot (1647–1680), writer †
  • Hugo Wolf (1860–1903), composer †
  • Mikhail Vrubel (1856–1910), painter
  • Kostas Karyotakis (1896–1928), Greek poet
  • Lord Randolph Churchill (1849–1895), British politician, father of Winston Churchill
  • Harry Nelson Pillsbury (1872–1906), chess master †
  • Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), politician S
  • Eleanor of Toledo (1522-1562), Duchess of Florence S

Further Reading

Last Updated: Jun 5, 2019

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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  1. Ruth Walker Ruth Walker United States says:

    This December 2011 article says there is no convincing evidence of syphilis in Europe before Columbus.

  2. Richard Gibson Richard Gibson United States says:

    Bram Stoker (author of "Dracula") died of "Locomotor Ataxy 6 months," according to Stoker's nephew. "Locomotor Ataxy" was a euphemistic way of saying "syphilis." See the following article for details:

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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