The Origins of Syphilis: Myths Debunked
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) with a persistent and quasi-mythic presence in human history. As with any subject that has received this amount of attention, some of the lore surrounding syphilis is rooted in fiction. However, the facts are often stranger than the stories.
Our understanding of illnesses and human biology didn't begin to address syphilis until the beginning of the 20th century. For the previous several hundred years, however, syphilis caused rampant suffering, though it cannot be traced to a singular "patient zero."
We'll likely never know its definitive origin story, so storytellers have created many far-fetched theories about syphilis. Here's a look at a few debunked stories and several believed to hold truth.
Fiction: Columbus is the cause
Christopher Columbus and his crew of explorers are often blamed for introducing syphilis into Europe after returning from the New World at the end of the 15th century. While it's true the spread of the illness was likely facilitated by sailors and soldiers having sexual relations from port to port, recent discoveries indicate syphilis and related pathogens may have evolved as many as 2,500 years ago. The oldest common ancestor to contemporary venereal syphilis likely originated between the 12th and 16th centuries, making it unlikely Columbus and his crew brought it to Europe from America.
Likely: Spread by soldiers
Soldiers are, historically speaking, one of the most prolific population groups when it comes to the spread of STDs. Traveling from continent to continent and making the most of their shore leave, the sailors and infantry of various nations throughout time have helped syphilis, gonorrhea and other conditions proliferate around the globe.
Syphilis symptoms can take months to show, which is ample time for a single soldier to visit multiple ports and infect a new partner or multiple partners. Imagine this on a huge global scale and you can see how militaries and shipping expeditions undoubtedly contributed to the spread of STDs.
Fiction: A single nation is to blame
There's a trend in historical records surrounding syphilis outbreaks of blaming foreigners. The word syphilis comes from a poem written by an Italian physician and poet, Fracastorius. Translated, the title of the poem is, "Syphilis, or the French Disease." Prior to this, the disease had been known in various countries as the French disease. Similarly, the French called it the Italian disease. Relative to the political positioning of each nation succumbing to syphilis, the disease has been Spanish, Polish and Christian. Throughout history, countries have often blamed competing nations or ideologies when ravaged by the destruction from an unknown illness. These misguided allegations foster no solutions and often lead to further racism, xenophobia and violence.
Likely: Early patients were poisoned
For hundreds of years, poisonous metals were a primary component in the spectrum for treating syphilis. The earliest-known methods involved giving patients mercury via injection, and later improvements to those treatments required arsenic and bismuth salts. While these treatments became less toxic over time, the results of being intentionally poisoned with mercury or arsenic—which sometimes included death—were arguably worse than living with, or dying from, syphilis.
Fiction: Syphilis is a disease of the past
Syphilis treatments have come a long way from deadly mercury injections, and most syphilis cases today can be treated effectively with antibiotics. However, a gradual increase in the number of cases has occurred since about 2001—cases jumped 11.2 percent from 2018 to 2019—and the illness can still wreak havoc on a person's life and, potentially, the lives of others if left untreated. Syphilis is still very much a prevalent disease.
Fact: Getting tested is the best practice
An active sexual lifestyle should include proactive sexual health practices. Frequent and comprehensive testing for all STDs and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is always the best practice to keep yourself and any potential partners safe.