31.03.2016 |

Episode #2 of the course “History of western epidemics” by Robin Tang


Another epidemic that broke out in Italy following the Black Death was syphilis, with its first written account dating back to the 1490s. This sexually transmitted infection was known by several namesthe Great Pox, the French Disease, or “the clap” in common vernacular. The term syphilis was coined by Fracastoro, an Italian physician who wrote a poem about a shepherd named Syphilis who had angered the gods by worshipping his king.

Syphilis is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, whose fragile nature prevents it from surviving outside bodily fluids. Thus, it is only transmittable via intimate sexual contact. The first stage begins several weeks after the initial infection and lasts one to two months. It is marked by painful ulcers around the site of entry. The second stage begins between two months to a year after the ulcers disappear. It is marked by painful swelling and sores all over the bodyespecially in the palms of the hands and on the soles of the feetas well as high fevers and painful joints that keep victims screaming at night.

If a pre-modern patient survived this excruciating stage but was not treated (which was generally not possible before the discovery of penicillin), syphilis went into a latent stage lasting several years to decades before reemerging in the tertiary stage. This final illness afflicts deep tissues and causes degeneration of the neurons in the spinal cord, leading to dementia, insanity, paralysis, and often death. Although still a debilitating disease, syphilis has evolved over the centuries to become less severe and fatal, perhaps to aid its own survival by allowing the infected to stay alive longer and spread the bacteria to more victims.

The exact origins of syphilis are still debated among historians. One popular belief is that Columbus brought Treponema pallidum back from his first voyage to the New World. However, no definitive evidence of the bacteria existed in the New World at the time. An alternative hypothesis suggests that the disease had existed for a long time in Spain and Africa, but it only spread to the rest of the continent with the expulsion of the Jews from their homeland. The 1494 invasion of Italy by the French army serving Charles VIII greatly aided the spread of this epidemic, and thus to the Italians, syphilis became known as the French Disease. Its common association with foreigners gave rise to xenophobia and scapegoating, while its transmission through sexual contact brought harsh measures against prostitutes and brothels.


Recommended book

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot


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