When was syphilis first identified?

Updated: Jul 17, 2018
  • Author: Richard P Knudsen, MD, FAAN, FAAP; Chief Editor: Niranjan N Singh, MBBS, MD, DM, FAHS, FAANEM  more...
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Syphilis was first described in a Latin poem written by an Italian physician around 1530. It was, early on, thought that if a patient's wickedness exceeded his or her natural virtue, then the disease could be incurable. By explaining these incurable causes, physicians were invoking the idea that the "French disease," or "mal francese," was sent as a punishment from God. This reinforced the social stigmata attached to the disease by associating it with shameful and immoral behavior. [6]

In 1521, for example, the Venetian public health office, the SANITA, officially responded to the civilian epidemic and military crisis that had spread to a critical number of affected persons who begged for alms on the streets. "Incurabili" hospitals were established throughout the Italian peninsula, including the cities of Rome, Bologna, Genoa, Florence, Naples, and Padua. University-trained physicians and popular healers sold their remedies, as well as recipes for how to make them. They often targeted affluent women who might be too ashamed to seek medical treatment from their regular clinicians. Some were so stigmatized and marginalized that they simply committed suicide.

The recipes, of note, included a variety of everyday herbs and substances, such as incense, chamomile, earthworms, and chicken fat. Occasionally, more expensive and exotic ingredients, such as Artemisia dracunculus (tarragon), badger fat, bear fat, goose fat, or blood from a male pig, were used, especially if the case seemed particularly stubborn. The Italian Health Board and Holy Office tried to governmentally regulate the vast marketplace of cures, suspecting witchcraft, sorcery, and exorcism.

The disease was introduced into Europe in the late 15th century, probably by returning explorers from the Americas and the Caribbean, and quickly became an epidemic throughout much of Europe.

This outbreak is notably the only significant infection that Native Americans gave to Europe in return for the many devastating infections brought to America by Europeans. The epidemic spread was coincident with the invasion of Naples, Italy, by the French king, Charles VII. The dispersal of his debauched mercenary army throughout Western Europe was responsible for the rapid spread of the new disease, termed the great pox. During the first years of its infestation in an immunologically naive population, syphilis appears to have assumed particularly horrific clinical manifestations. Few other diseases have inflicted such a burden of suffering on humankind as the one that became known as the great imitator.

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