Encyclopedia > Syphilis

  Article Content


Syphilis (previously called lues) is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is caused by a spirochaete bacterium - Treponema pallidum.

The route of transmission is almost invariably by sexual contact, however, there are examples of direct contact infections and of inborn syphilis.

Primary syphilis is manifested after an incubation period of 10-90 days (average 21 days) with a primary sore. The sore, called a chancre[?], is localized at the point of initial exposure to the bacterium, often on the penis, vagina or rectum.

In the United States, about 36,000 cases of syphilis are reported each year, and the actual number is presumed to be higher. About three-fifths of the reported cases occur in men.

If not treated, syphilis can cause serious effects such as damage to the nervous system, heart, or brain. Untreated syphilis can be fatal. If you think you might have syphilis, or if you find out that a sex partner had or might have had syphilis, see a doctor as soon as possible.

Syphilis is cured using penicillin or other antibiotics.

Health care professionals suggest that safer sex practices such as the use of condoms should always be used in sexual activities, but they should by no means be considered an absolute safeguard. The best suggestion is to avoid sexual activities with anyone known to have a sexually transmissible disease, and indeed anyone whose disease-negative status you aren't certain of.


The origins of syphilis are not known, though it does not appear to have been known in Europe in Classical times. One school of thought has it that syphilis was brought back to Europe from the New World by the crew of Christopher Columbus's first voyage. The evidence is circumstantial, and based on the fact that the first recognized outbreak was at Naples in 1494 where a number of Spaniards from the Columbus crew participated in the army of Charles VIII of France. By 1498 the Portuguese explorers had lovingly introduced the disease to India.

Because of the outbreak in the French army, it was first called morbus gallicus, or the French disease. In that time it is noteworthy that the Italians also called it the "Spanish disase", the French called it the "Italian" or "Neapolitan disease", the Russians called it the "Polish disease", and the Arabs called it the "Disease of the Christians". The name "syphilis" was first applied by Girolamo Fracastro[?] in 1530 from the name of a shepherd in a poem by Leonardo da Vinci.

A number of famous historical personages, beginning with Charles VIII himself, have been alleged to have had syphilis. Guy de Maupassant and Friedrich Nietzsche are both thought to have been driven insane and ultimately killed by the disease. Al Capone contracted syphilis as a young man. By the time he was incarcerated at Alcatraz, it reached its third stage, neurosyphilis, making him confused and disoriented. Also the painter Paul Gauguin suffered from syphilis.

The insanity caused by late-stage syphilis was once one of the more common forms of dementia, and was known as general paresis of the insane.

In one of the more shameful episodes of the twentieth century, the Tuskegee syphilis study studied the lifetime course of syphilis in a group of black Americans, long after effective treatments for syphilis were available.

Syphilis in art and literature

In Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre, the character Edward Rochester's first wife, Bertha, is characterised as suffering from the advanced stages of syphilitic infection, general paresis of the insane, and there is plenty of corroborative evidence within the text to substantiate this view.

There are references to syphilis in William Shakespeare's play Measure for Measure, particularly in a number of early passages spoken by the character Lucio, whose name, suggesting light and truth, is meant to indicate that he is to be taken seriously. For example Lucio says "[...] thy bones are hollow"; this is a reference to the brittleness of bones engendered by the use of mercury which was then widely used to treat syphilis.

The artist Kees van Dongen produced a series of illustrations for the anarchist publication L'Assiette au Beurre[?] showing the descent of a young prostitute from poverty to her death from syphilis as a criticism of the social order at the end of the 19th century.

External links:

"Syphilis fact sheet" from the Center for Disease Control
Kipkeepers, Pox and Gleet Vendors: A Rapid History of Syphilis
The treatment of dementia paralytica by malaria innoculation (A Nobel Prize lecture, December 13, 1927)
From mercury to malaria to penicillin: The history of the treatment of syphilis at the Mayo Clinic, 1916-1955

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article
Monty Woolley

... in 1942's The Man Who Came to Dinner[?], which he had performed onstage before taking it to Hollywood. Academy Awards and Nominations 1945 - Nominated - Best Actor ...

This page was created in 38.2 ms