Pox: A History of Syphilis

February 12, 2017 in General

In her book Murderous Contagion (2007), Mary Dobson has written a valuable series of social histories related to disease. One such is syphilis.

Syphilis is an STI, spread by a bacterium, treponema pallidium. It was named in 1530 by Italian doctor Girolamo Fracastoro, in a poem entitled Syphilis sive morbus Gallicus. It first appeared in Europe in the 1490s, causing disfiguring pustules, abscesses and facial disfigurement. After French soldiers left the siege of Naples in 1498, they and their female liaisons facilitated the spread of the disease throughout Western Europe. Whether or not it was the consequence of Spanish and Portugese colonialism in the Americas, or had already been present in Europe, is still a matter of epidemiological debate.

Given its STI status, it was then referred to initially as lues venerea (venereal plague), leading to a prohibitionist campaign against sex work by none other than that serial monogamist of repute, King Henry VIII of England. In Restoration England, though, condoms were recommended as a protective barrier, as the disease progressed from genital sores to rashes and fever, an asymptomatic stage and then the spread of bodily abscesses and greater disfigurement. It was also able to spread in utero to fetuses. Bloodletting and the the ingestion of mercury were also used as “preventative” measures, as was quarantine and fumigation- “pox houses” were built in Venice, London and Germany. It was recorded in William Hogarth’s (1697-1764) set of moralist engravings, A Harlot’s Progress. In Victorian London, as much as twenty percent of the population may have been affected.

In 1905, German researchers Fritz Schaudinn (1871-1906) and Erica Hoffman (1868-1959) found spiral thread-shaped bacteria, eventually naming it treponema pallidium. In 1906, August Wasserman (1866-1925) produced a blood test to identify its presence. Japanese scientist Sahachino Hata (1873-1938) discovered a chemical defence against syphilis, arsphenamine, marketed as Salvarsan by Hoechst, a German drug company. It had unpleasant side effects, but fortunately penicillin proved just as efficacious.

In the First and Second World Wars, ‘venereal disease’ proved a problem amongst soliders. In the United States, prohibitionist anti-sexworker initiatives were undertaken in World War One, but by World War II, condoms were more widely distributed to service personnel. After 1950, syphilis levels began to fall. However, in the United States, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in Macon County, Georgia, ran an unauthorised and non-consensual placebo trial on 400 black sharecroppers who were deliberately left untreated and not informed about their actual condition, over the space of four decades (1932-1972). President Bill Clinton apologised for Tuskegee two decades after it ended.

Today, most remaining syphilis cases are to be found in Africa. Gonnorhea, however, may be developing treatment resistant strains.


Mary Dobson: Murderous Contagion: London: Quercus: 2007

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