Where Did Syphilis Come From?

tags: history of medicine, syphilis




Last month, Katherine Wright was awarded the Wellcome Trust science writing prize at a ceremony at the Observer's offices at Kings Place, London. Wright, who is studying for a DPhil in structural biology at Oxford University, was judged the winner of category A "for professional scientists of postgraduate level and above" from more than 600 entries by a panel including BBC journalist Maggie Philbin, scientist and broadcaster Helen Czerski and the Observer's Carole Cadwalladr. "I am absolutely thrilled to have won the science writing prize," says Wright. "This experience has inspired me to continue science writing in the future."

In the 1490s, a gruesome new disease exploded across Europe. It moved with terrifying speed. Within five years of the first reported cases, among the mercenary army hired by Charles VIII of France to conquer Naples, it was all over the continent and reaching into north Africa. The first symptom was a lesion, or chancre, in the genital region. After that, the disease slowly progressed to the increasingly excruciating later stages. The infected watched their bodies disintegrate, with rashes and disfigurements, while they gradually descended into madness. Eventually, deformed and demented, they died.

Some called it the French disease. To the French, it was the Neapolitan disease. The Russians blamed the Polish. In 1530, an Italian physician penned an epic poem about a young shepherd named Syphilis, who so angered Apollo that the god struck him down with a disfiguring malady to destroy his good looks. It was this fictional shepherd (rather than national rivalries) who donated the name that eventually stuck: the disease, which first ravaged the 16th-century world and continues to affect untold millions today, is now known as syphilis.

As its many names attest, contemporaries of the first spread of syphilis did not know where this disease had come from. Was it indeed the fault of the French? Was it God's punishment on earthly sinners?...



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