Syphilis: Zoonotic Pestilence or New World Souvenir?

mercury preparation for syphilis

Depiction of mercury treatments for syphilis.

The “French Disease”

In 1494, France was at war with Naples when the French camp was struck by a terrible disease.
It began with genital sores, spread to a general rash, then caused abscesses and scabs all over the body. Boils as big as acorns, they said, that burst leaving rotting flesh and a disgusting odour. Sufferers also had fever, headaches, sore throats, and painful joints and bones. The disease was disabling, ugly, and terrifying. And people noticed almost from the first that it (usually) started on the genitals, and appeared to be spread by sexual congress.

The Italian kingdoms joined forces and threw out the French, who took the disease home with them, and from there it spread to plague the world until this day.

Where did it come from?

Syphilis. The French Disease. The Pox. The Great Imitator (because it looks like many other illnesses and is hard to diagnose). The French call it the Neopolitan Disease. It is caused by a bacterium that is closely related to the tropical diseases yaws and bejel.

Scientists theorise that somewhere in the late 15th Century, perhaps right there in the French camp outside of Naples, a few slightly daring yaws bacteria found the conditions just right to change their method of transmission. No longer merely skin-to-skin contact, but a very specific type of contact: from sores to mucus membranes in the genitals, anus, or mouth.

They’ve found a couple of possible sources.

One was the pre-Columbian New World, where yaws was widespread. Did one of Columbus’s sailors carry it back? It would have had to have been the first or second voyage to be outside of Naples in 1494.

The other is zoonotic. Six out of every ten human infectious diseases started in animals. Was syphilis one of them? Monkeys in Africa suffer from closely related diseases, at least one of which is sexually transmitted.

Gerard de Lairesse

Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse. Rembrandt, 1665. Gerard de Lairesse was an artist who suffered from congenital syphilis.

Mild is a relative term

At first, syphilis killed sufferers within a few months, but killing the host immediately is a bad strategy when you’re a bacterium. Especially when you’re a frail little bacterium that can’t live outside of warm, moist mucus membranes.

So, syphilis adapted. Soon, few people died immediately. The first sore (or chancre) appears between ten days to three months after contact. About ten weeks after it heals, the rash appears, and the other symptoms mentioned above. These symptoms last for several weeks and tend to disappear without treatment, but reoccur several times over the next two years.

For more than half of sufferers, that’s it. The disease has run its course. But it is a sneaky little thing. It is still lurking, and a third or more of those who contract the disease will develop late complications up to thirty years after the original chancre. These are the ones to fear. During the latent phase, the disease is cheerfully eating away at the heart, eyes, brain, nervous system, bones, joints, or almost any other part of the body.

The sufferer can look forward to years, even decades, of mental illness, blindness, other neurological problems, or heart disease, and eventually the blessed relief of death.

How was it treated?

Until the invention of antibiotics, the treatment was as bad as the cure. Physicians and apothecaries prescribed mercury in ointments, steam baths, pills, and other forms. Mercury is a poison, and can
cause hair loss, ulcers, nerve damage, madness, and death. (see image above)

Syphilis was the impetus for the adoption of condoms, their birth control effect noticed later and little regarded (since conception was a woman’s problem). The first clear description is of linen sheaths soaked in a chemical solution and allowed to dry before use. Animal intestines and bladder, and fine leather condoms also appear in the literature.

They were sold in pubs, apothecaries, open-air markets, and at the theatre, and undoubtedly every wise prostitute kept a stock.

Not having sex—or at least not having sex with multiple partners—would have been a more effective solution, but it appears few of society’s finest took notice of that!

Syphilis in romantic fiction

Those of us who write rakes would do well to remember how easy it was to catch the pox. Indeed, in some circles it was a rite of passage!

“I’ve got the pox!” crowed the novelist de Maupassant in his 20s. “At last! The real thing!” He did his part as a carrier by having sex with six prostitutes in quick succession while friends watched on. (Perrottet)

The mind boggles.

We can, I am sure, have fun with the symptoms and the treatment, though we’d do well to remember that it was not an immediate death sentence, and suicide might be considered an overreaction to the first active stage, when most people got better and were never troubled again.

Scattered across a few of the books I’m writing, I have my own syphilitic character in the final stage, suffering from slow deterioration of his mental facilities and occasional bouts of madness, though his condition is a secret from all but his wife, his doctor, and his heir.

Watch this space!

Jude Knight is the pen name of Judy Knighton. After a career in commercial writing, editing, and publishing, Jude is returning to her first love, fiction. She writes strong determined heroines, heroes with the sense to appreciate them, and villains you’ll love to loathe.

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References

Cohen, Ann and Perlin, David. Syphilis: A Sexual Scourge with a Long History. Infoplease.

Harper, Kristen, Zuckerman, Molly, and Armelagos, George. Syphilis: Then and Now. The Scientist. 

Harvard University Library Open Collections Program. Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. Syphilis. 

Mroczkowski, Tomasz F. History, Sex and Syphilis: Famous Syphilitics and Their Private Lives.

Perrottet, Tony. When Syphilis Was Tres Chic. The Smart Set. 

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6 thoughts on “Syphilis: Zoonotic Pestilence or New World Souvenir?

  1. ‘Responsible sex’ just wasn’t a thing. It might be quite interesting to write a reformed rake who, in the back of his mind, knows that the dreaded illness might be lurking to eventually kill him.

    One thing. During the first stages (chancres and sores), the disease is highly contagious. But it isn’t passed on during the latent stage.

    Like

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