Syphilis & The Columbian Exchange


The causative agent for Syphilis is the bacterium Treponema Pallidum grouped under the Spirochete Family. In 1530, Girolamo Fracastoro, a Renaissance medical public figure and poet in Verona introduced the name “syphilis” in his work “Syphilis sive Morbus Gallicus” about a shepherd named Syphilus. Syphilus offends the god Apollo and the latter cursed people with syphilis named after Syphilus. It is interesting to note that for two centuries, Syphilis name was ‘great pox’ mainly to show a difference between it and small pox.  No nationality wanted a link to Syphilis because they deemed it discomfiture; hence they all named the disease by associating it with another country. For example:


  the Germans and English called it “the French pox”; Russians, “the Polish sickness”; Poles, “the German sickness”; French “the Neapolitan sickness”; Flemish, Dutch, Portuguese, and North Africans, “the Spanish sickness” or “the Castilian sickness”; and the Japanese, “the Canton rash” or “the Chinese ulcer.” (Heymann, 2006)


The origin and spread of syphilis is one of the oldest scientific debates: did it exist in Europe before Columbus maiden voyage in 1492 or did it return with Columbus and crew after their first voyage to the New World. It is important to highlight paleopathologist Charlotte Roberts’s research from skeletal material found at the site of the Magistrate’s court in Hull, England. The site was a friary established between BCE 1316–1317 and occupied until 1539. Roberts reports that four of the skeleton shows without a doubt – syphilis. In addition, Maciej and Renata Henneberg in different archaeological site report of syphilis cases in Metaponto, Italy  a former Greek colony from 580 -250 CE.


However, another school of thought from Armelagos et al suggests that the studies of both Roberts and Henneberg contain some loopholes which question credibility of their research. Armelagos et al voice strongly the need for scientific peer review for such findings especially in the case of Roberts’s analysis. Furthermore, Armelagos et al argues that poor preservation of skeletal remains, other types of lesions on the skeletal questions the fairness of asserting the claim that syphilis existed in Europe before 1492. In addition, the team spoke on the high fish consumption of the friars in Roberts study explaining that this particular diet can affect the accuracy of the radiocarbon results. It is worth pointing out here that the peer reviewers [Armelagos et al] stance in the origin arguments leans towards the Old World. The team explains that given the tests on Native American skeletal of the pre- Columbian New World indicates existence of treponemal disease [syphilis, pinta, and yaws] with a low infection (maybe non-venereal), there was no lesion associated to congenital syphilis. The team also explained the discovery of variation of yaws, in a distant area in Guyana, South America .One must remember that the Europeans came from a different climate, sex practices and clothing atmosphere. It is possible that the bacterium responsible for syphilis met a new strain/pressure in the Old World atmosphere and creation of a new host conditioned T. Pallidum. Furthermore, the team believes that lesions treponemal in nature, of samples from Europeans and North Africans does not exist in pre-Columbian era but shows up in 1493 which coincides with the return of Columbus and his crew from their maiden voyage.


I am wondering if the conflict of opinion on the origin of Syphilis is ongoing not because of the lack of evidence but because of the taint of the disease as ‘sexy.’ I notice that from some readings that sometimes it reads like the Columbian Hypothesis blames the Pre-Columbian hypothesis or vice versa for creating a sexually transmitted disease. Perhaps many infuriated with the studies which show Europeans diseases killing some many Indians in the New World, hence the response but the Indians “got even” with Syphilis. What if what the Columbian Exchange did was create a new host which turned a non-venereal disease into a sexually transmitted atmosphere?



Works Cited

Armelagos, George J., Molly K. Zuckerman, and Kristin N. Harper. “The Science behind Pre-Columbian Evidence of Syphilis in Europe: Research by Documentary.” Evolutionary anthropology 21.2 (2012): 50–57. PMC. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.

Heymann, Warren R. “The History of Syphilis: Based on a dialogue between Drs Robert J. Pariser and Gary Brauner.” The Journal of The American Academy of Dermatology (February 2006): Volume 54, Issue 2, Pages 322–323.

Tampa, M et al. “Brief History of Syphilis.” Journal of Medicine and Life 7.1 (2014): 4–10. Print.


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