John Hunter (1728-1793), an outstanding 18th-century physician and surgeon, was considered to be an expert on venereal diseases. Syphilis, believed to be a disease brought to Europe by the crew of Columbus' ships at the end of the 15th century, was in Hunter's time a common and serious affliction.
Hunter thought that both gonorrhea and syphilis were caused by the same organism, and when he contracted syphilis from a gonorrhea patient with occult syphilis, he believed his self-experimentation validated his theory. The true cause of syphilis, Treponema pallidum, was only discovered in the early part of the 20th century and is different from the causative agent for gonorrhea.
In the 18th century, the treatment of syphilis was rudimentary. Hunter recommended mercury and cauterization—which are much less effective than current antibiotic therapy. Hunter apparently never developed the debilitating symptoms of tertiary syphilis, remaining capable and productive until his death at age 65 from a sudden heart attack.
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