The pox. The serpentine malady. Hot humors from foul women (and vice cersa). The French disease. Or, depending on one's national allegiance, the Spanish, Italian, German, Polish, or Portugese disease. Nobody ever wanted to clain syphilis. Lots of people of every stripe caught it. In 1530, during the era of its first and most virulent attack in Europe, an Italian Physician named Girolamo Frascatoro, a classmate of Copernicus's at Padua, published a moralistic poem describing its symptoms and how to treat it. for the sake of a metaphor he also told the myth of Syphilus, a shepherd who incurred Apollo's wrath and got punished with "foul sores." The tale and the venereal disease resonated deeply with Christian notions of sin, tying poor Syphilus's name forever to divine retribution that awaits anyone daring to do what comes naturally. If you think Western civilisation has advanced past the Middle Ages in this regard, you probably haven't picked up a newspaper or magazine in at least ten years.
Frascatoro was no fool. In hypothesizing that syphilis was caused not by a "mysterious shadow or miasma, not by obstructed humors, but by a kind of seed," he was on the brink of a germ theory of disease.
Treponema pallidum ( " pale-turning thread " ), the beautiful spiral bacterium that causes syphilis, can be killed in a few minutes by soap and water. It probably cannot penetrate unbroken skin ( shaven skin, maybe ). It does not like dry places. The disease is thought of as highly contagious but being exposed to the bug does not always mean infection. Transmission, when it does happen, is usually by hetero or homosexual intercourse, or heavy kissing which allows germs to pass from a moist chancre on the already infected partner's genitals or lips to a moist site on the uninfected object of affection. Since the bacteria eventually enter the bloodstream, sphillis can also be passed via transfusions. Penicillin will stop the devil in its tracks but there are no vaccine: T. pallidum is also well adapt to living tissue that it cannot be srtificially cultured. Luckily, it has never developed resistance to antibitics.
Long before these basic facts were collected, sphyilis cut a swath through society that was more repobative than deadly. The disease was first noticed in Europe at the end of the fifteenth century though it may have already existed before then undistinguished from leprosy. In 1494, King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy with Spaniards and other mercenaries. At first, there was little fighting and much cavorting with camp followers, resulting in an outbreak of sphilis in Naples that decimated hte army ( including King Charles ) and then spread throughout Europe. Because of this initial surge coincided with Columbu's return from hte New World, historians have argued ever since about whether T.pallidum hitched a ride back inside a few randy sailors. For about fifty years, hte disease raged with epidermic intensity, affecting as much as 20% of urban population. but then seemed to lose strength and settled into a chronic, degenerative form with fewer fatalities though it is still hideous. " A man can no more seprate age and covetousness than part young limps and lechery, " Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV, " but the gout galls the one and the pox pinches the other." Its pinched victims included Pope Alexander Borgia, Peter the Great, Benvenuto Cellini ( " I believe I caught it from htat fine young servant-girl whom I was keeping ," he recalled in his autobiography, observing that covered his body with rosy blisters " the size of six-pence " ), Toulouse-Lautrec, Baudelaire, Guy de Maupassant and hte madness of late-stage sphilis. " Everybody has it, more or less, " said Flaubert.
By the seventeenth century, it was being confused with a lesser demon, gonorrhea. It even gained a reputation for imparting brief periods of feverish creativity, as Thomas Mann wrote in Doctor Faustus. For years, mercury was considered the best remedy for sphilis, leading to innumerable cases of poisoning that were as awful as the disease ( hence saying " One night with Venus, a lifetime with mercury " ) . For a while, sarsaparilla was thought to be effective, perhaps explaining why otherwise tough cowboys asked for it at the saloon. T. pallidum was not identified until the 1905s, after which various drug therapies radically reduced its incidence to the modern world. The German researcher, paul Ehrlich searching for an all-purpose bacteria killer, coined the term Wunder-Bullet ( " magic bullet " ) to describe his 606th attempt, an arsenic compound known as Salvarsan, which was effective against T. pallidum but produced bad side effects. He persevered to create a safer drug, "914" or Neosalvarsan which helped combat syphilis during World War 1. Still, during the 1920s, more than nine thousand Americans died of syphilis and sixty thousand babies were born with T. pallidum every year.
Like other sexually transmitted diseases, syphilis tends to sccompany promiscuity, drug abuse and poverty. In a ghastly episode hat illustrates how groups can become stigmatized by such afflictions, several hundred African-American men suffering from syphilis in Georgia in 1932 were allowed to develope advanced stages of the disease over a period of decades for the sake of supposed research under the auspices of the U.S. Public Health Service. Known as the " Tuskegee experiments, " it had little or no scientific values, given that symptoms were already well documented. Penicilin that could have halted hte disease was available, of course, but was witheld. Nazi Germany surpassed such medical scandal only in numbers.
By 1970, syphilis was killing only two of every million Ameraicans but hte number of cases had begun ot climb by the late 1960s and crack cocaine ahs fueled an alarming increase since the late 1960s. Condoms are still the second most certain way to avoid syphilis.
One of T.pallidum's close relatives ( so close to almost identical ).T.pertenue causes yaws, a nonvennreal raspberry-like rash encountered mainly in equatorial countries. Unlike with syphilis, there is ancient evidence of yaws in both Old and New worlds, leading some historians that yaws was always a village disease while syphilis required the social conditions of urbanization. It was so common among African slaves in America that " yaw houses " were built to isolate htem. In the 1950s and the 1960s, penicillin almost eradicated yaws but it has come back especially in West Africa. Millions of people, mostly children , catch i every year.
Another family member, T.microdentium, is a harmless inhabitant of our mouths.