Syphilis Through the Ages: The Origins, Types of Treatment, and Impact of the Disease

Syphilis, through the ages, was one of the most stigmatized diseases in history. This infection caused countries to blame their neighbors for the outbreak.

The United Kingdom blamed the French for the infection; the French believed the Neapolitans were to blame, while the German called it a “Polish disease.” The accusations often shifted from one country to the other, which led many to consider it the most disgraceful infection at the time. Read about the evolution of syphilis through the ages, where it came from, and how did people try to treat it over the years.

Syphilis Through the Ages: The Origins of the Infection

Before the 20th century, people believed that syphilis came from America when Christopher Columbus explored the New World in 1493. 

The first official records of syphilis, however, date back to 1495, when a terrible infection emerged among the army of Charles VIII, the king of France, during the invasion of Naples. However, a different study from the 1980s stated that this infection is an old disease, but became more harmful in the 15th century.

How Did Syphilis Affect People in the Past?

Syphilis was nowhere as dangerous as the bubonic plague, but it was incredibly disgusting and painful for those infected. Anyone who carried the infection experienced severe pain, ulcers, and repulsive abscesses.

The infection began with genital ulcers that later turned into a fever, then rash, and finally, pain in the muscles. As the infection progressed, it manifested all over the body and created sores. The pain escalated during the night and became incredibly difficult to bear.

It was so difficult to live with that, many years later, during World War I, it became one of the most common reasons for soldiers to take a leave of absence. Around 10,000 men were discharged from service, and almost 7 million leave-days were taken for those infected. In the Vietnam war, syphilis was responsible for 1% of cases for loss of duty.

How Was the Syphilis In the Past Different from Today?

Syphilis through the ages was much more severe than it is today. Scholars back then described it as a serious and potentially life-threatening disease. If the infection was left to manifest in the body months after it was contracted, it could eat away the bones and destroy the eyes, lips, and nose. In many cases, it would also spread to the throat and mouth.

How Was Syphilis Treated in the Past?

There were hardly any available medications for treating syphilis through the ages. At the start of the 16th century, people used guaiacum as an ointment. This is something they referred to as “holy wood.” They also took sweat baths to reduce the inflammation but experienced very few positive effects. Years later, rubbing mercury on the skin became the only available treatment. However, it often resulted in mercury poisoning.

To control the impact of the infection, scientists had to find other, more effective methods. It wasn’t until 1943 (the era of antibiotics) that new health measures were implemented, and penicillin was used to treat the infection. With the penicillin, the impact of the disease declined.