Tech UPTechnologyWhere did syphilis come from?

Where did syphilis come from?


In the 1490s, a highly contagious venereal disease swept through the ports and cities of Spain, southern France, and Italy, only to spread later to Vienna and north beyond Leipzig, Bergen, and Aberdeen. In 1497 Alexander Benedetto of Venice, physician to Pope Alexander VI, observed victims who had lost their eyes, noses, hands, and feet . According to Benedetto “the whole body is so repulsive to look at and the suffering is so great, especially at night, that this disease is even more horrific than incurable leprosy”. In 1539 the Spaniard Ruy Díaz de Isla, a surgeon at the All Saints Hospital in Lisbon, stated that the new disease had caused so much damage that there was not a European village with a hundred residents where ten of them had not died from this disease. Although it was an exaggerated observation, it does reflect the helplessness of this doctor in the face of a disease that far exceeded all his knowledge.

In the first moments of the epidemic, doctors went where they had always gone for solutions, to the classical sources, looking for a description that fit what they were seeing. There was nothing. Niccolo Leoniceno, an Italian physician and botanist and the most important professor of medicine at the University of Ferrara, expressed his bewilderment when he wrote: “When I consider that humanity has the same nature, is born under the same sky… I must arrive at the conclusion that we have always been subject to the same diseases…. I cannot believe that this disease has been born suddenly and has only infected our time and none of the preceding ones”.

The behavior of syphilis indicates that it was a totally new disease. In Italian universities, where astrology was an academic subject, they looked for an explanation in the sky and found it: it derived from the conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in 1484 . This idea soon became popular in the rest of Europe, as evidenced by a drawing by Albrecht Dürer (Dürer) from 1496. Others saw a clear connection between it and “lewd or impure sexual gratification”. From 1526 it began to be heard that the disease was among the natives of Hispaniola, and that it was brought to Europe by Columbus’s sailors. This idea of an imported disease permeated the minds of Europeans; in 1748 Mantesquieu, in his book The Spirit of the Laws , took it for granted that he had come from America and exterminated most of the great families of Europe.

Was it brought to Europe by mercenaries from other places?

However, others said that the disease had started among the 30,000 soldiers (mostly mercenaries) who in August 1494 invaded Italy under the command of the French king Charles VIII (in Spain his nickname was El Cabezudo). That army moved quickly from Milan to Naples and had been stationed for a few weeks in Rome, where it was said that there were more prostitutes than priests. Then it was launched on Naples, which offered no resistance and there was, to put it mildly, much fraternization between soldiers and villagers. After that, the mercenaries turned and headed north where they fought a battle against Venice at Fornovo, south of Parma, which ended in a stalemate. The French army was disbanded and soldiers returned to civilian life, especially north of the Alps. In this way, at the end of the 15th century, the so-called French disease ( morbus gallicus ) spread rapidly first in Italy and then throughout Europe. If we add to all this the voyages of sailors and merchants in the age of exploration, syphilis ended up comfortably settling along the entire African Mediterranean coast, later jumping to India, Ceylon and the Malay Peninsula. In 1504 it appeared in Canton (China), where they called it the “cherry ulcer”. Since then syphilis has not stopped living with us.

Determining the origin of syphilis is complicated , made even more difficult by the fact that there are four similar diseases caused by the same genus of bacteria, treponema. In 1905 Fritz Schaudinn and his colleagues in Berlin discovered the cause of modern syphilis, Treponema pallidum pallidum . Shortly after, Aldo Castellani identified Treponema pallidum pertenue as the cause of yaws, the oldest of all treponematoses (evidence of this infection has been found in Homo erectus skeletons 1.6 million years old); and then F. León Blanco did the same with the agent of pinta (a very old disease typical of America), Treponema carateum. It was also discovered that there was a non-venereal syphilis , bejel or endemic syphilis, which has affected in different places and at different times, from Croatia to Botswana, caused by Treponema pallidum endemicus . In other words, around 1910 four different diseases caused by treponemes were recognized, although only one of them is transmitted by sexual contact. Is there any relationship between them? Who derives from whom? Or are they all different?

Modern research has not yet been able to provide an answer to the origin of venereal syphilis . The explanatory hypotheses about its origin remain the same as 500 years ago: either it came from the New World or it derived from a pre-existing disease in Europe due to a mutation.

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