Mankind was wrecked by the sudden appearance of syphilis in the late 1490s. At its onset and for centuries later, this new disease caused widespread epidemics throughout Western Europe and would eventually threaten nearly the entire world’s population at one time or another.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum, which is a corkscrew-shaped spirochete (a phylum or category of double-membrane bacteria). The exact cause of syphilis, Spirochaeta pallida, was co-discovered in 1905 by German zoologist Fritz Richard Schaudinn and German dermatologist Erich Hoffmann while the pair were working at the Berlin Charité, a large teaching hospital.
When syphilis first appeared in the 15th century, its symptoms were much more severe than those of present-day syphilis. The early symptoms included genital ulcers followed by fever, general rash and joint and muscle pains. Weeks or months later, symptoms included large, painful and foul-smelling abscesses and sores, or pocks, all over the body. These sores would become ulcers that could eat into bone and into the lips, nose and eyes as well. Sometimes sores would appear in the mouth or throat and death would occur. People afflicted with the disease suffered from extreme bone pain, especially at night.
Immunity to disease occurs after exposure to the disease, whether it be from exposure to the disease itself or to dead or weakened disease cells found within vaccines. Because the 15th century population had yet to develop immunity to syphilis, the disease spread quickly and had a much higher and quicker rate of morbidity than its present-day version.
There are two theories as to how syphilis came into being. The first is that Christopher Columbus’ sailors contracted syphilis during their travels in the 1490s and took the disease home with them when they returned to Europe, thus allowing the disease to spread. The second is that syphilis was an older treponeal disease (treponeal meaning to originate from Treponema bacteria) that mutated in the late 15th century to become more virulent than its ancestor bacterium had previously been.
The first European epidemic of syphilis occurred in Naples, Italy, in 1495. King Charles VIII of France had led 50,000 soldiers, consisting of mostly Flemish, Gascon (hailing from southwest France), Swiss, Italian and Spanish mercenaries and 800 camp followers into northern Italy. Charles wanted to take control of Naples so he could use it as a base from which to launch the Crusades. After winning the battle for Naples, the French soldiers celebrated and indulged in debauchery. Shortly after this bout of debauchery, syphilis was discovered among the soldiers.
French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire wrote, “On their flippant way through Italy, the French carelessly picked up Genoa, Naples and syphilis. Then they were thrown out and deprived of Naples and Genoa. But they did not lose everything — syphilis went with them.”
By the end of 1495, the syphilis epidemic had spread to France, Switzerland and Germany. By 1497, the disease had reached England and Scotland. Through exploration and trade routes, Europeans had taken syphilis to Calcutta in 1498. By 1500, syphilis had reached the Scandinavian countries, Hungary, Greece, Poland and Russia. Again through exploration and trade, syphilis had reached Africa, the near East, China, Japan and Oceania (a region of islands found in the Pacific Ocean) by 1520.
Syphilis has been known by a wide variety of names throughout its history, depending on which country the disease was ravaging at the time. Some examples include the great pox, the French pox, the Gallic disease, the Christian disease, Persian fire and grandgore, the latter of which is Scottish in origin. Syphilis was called the French pox or the French disease by the general public for nearly three centuries.
Syphilis itself gained its 19th century modern name, syphilis, from the epic Latin poem Syphilis, sive morbus gallicus (translated to ‘Syphilis, or the French disease’), which was published in 1530 by the Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro. In his poem, Fracastoro tells of a mythical shepherd named Syphilis. During a drought, the shepherd blamed his nation’s Sun-god for the drought and, as punishment, the Sun-god afflicted the shepherd the horrifying new disease, syphilis.
French physician Jacques de Béthencourt, who practiced medicine in Rouen, published his New Litany of Penitence in 1527. In this work, Béthencourt introduced the term Morbus venerus, or venereal disease, to describe sexually transmitted diseases. Instead of the commonly used Gallicus morbus, which has the literal translation “bad French,” in reference to syphilis, Béthencourt suggested that since syphilis “arises from illicit love it should be called the malady of Venus or venereal disease.” From this linguistic contribution, Béthencourt made his mark on sexual health and sexual education for centuries to come.
In the 16th century, the symptoms of syphilis had evolved to include severe debility, madness and possible death. The disfigurement and social ostracism resulting from syphilis infection is why many 16th century people feared the disease. There was no cure for syphilis for over 400 years of its existence. The symptoms of the disease were often treated with mercury, which caused more harm than good due to patients suffering from and often dying from mercury poisoning.
Some governments, such as that of King Henry VIII of England, attempted to ban prostitution or to at least regulate aspects of prostitution to help keep syphilis contained. There were some people who argued that those afflicted with syphilis had sinned, and therefore, should not be treated at all.
In 1673, English physician Thomas Sydenham argued that “the moral aspect of syphilis was not the province of the physician, who should treat all people without judgement.” Sydenham would later become known as “The English Hippocrates.”
Eventually, around the early 18th century, syphilis ceased to be the virulent epidemic it once was and transformed into the more episodic disease it is now. Syphilis has experienced peaks in infection rates, such as during times of war, after the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR) and after the popularization of social media apps such as Tinder that make casual sex more accessible.
The cure for syphilis was a result of research, experimentation and a little bit of luck. Sir Alexander Fleming was a Scottish biologist who was a professor of bacteriology at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. In September 1928, after a month’s absence, Fleming returned to his lab and to the cultures he had left unattended during his absence to discover the world’s first true antibiotic, penicillin. Fleming decided to name his discovery after the mold, Penicillium notatum, from which it derived.
Just after Fleming’s breakthrough discovery, a team of scientists from the University of Oxford, led by Australian pharmacologist and pathologist Howard Florey and German-born British biochemist Sir Ernst Chain, isolated and purified penicillin, which would come into widespread use during World War II and which would ultimately revolutionize the field of infection control.
Penicillin was first used to treat syphilis as recently as 1943 and is still used as the main treatment for the disease today. Penicillin is usually given as an injection, which allows for a quicker antibiotic response in the body. For patients allergic to penicillin, the antibiotics doxycycline, tetracycline, ceftriaxone and azithromycin can be used to treat syphilis in its earliest stages.
Fleming, Florey and Chain all received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945, “for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases.” Perhaps for their discoveries, Fleming was knighted in 1944, Florey was made Baron Florey of Adelaide in 1965 and Chain was knighted in 1969.
Mankind has lived with syphilis for more than 500 years and only the last 72 years of that time has been lived alongside a cure for the once-feared disease. Prevention is the absolute best way to avoid contracting a sexually transmitted disease with the use of condoms being an individual’s best defense against these diseases. Sexually active people of all ages should receive regular testing and medical exams to help diagnosis sexually transmitted infections.