Monday, May 05, 2008


by Brenda Roger

You’re welcome for that image first thing on Monday morning. I thought it would be an appropriate topic for Monday morning because I spent much of Sunday afternoon thinking about it, but doesn’t everybody?

Actually, I just finished Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris, much of which is devoted to the story of painter, Edouard Manet, who died of untreated syphilis. Naturally, I spent all afternoon planting sunflowers and thinking about syphilis. It’s no wonder that I think my neighbors are boring!

It seemed to me that more than once I’ve read stories about the lives of artists that ended with the artist dying of syphilis, which got me thinking about the history of the disease, which sent me on a quest on the Internet.

I won’t assault you with graphic descriptions of the symptoms of syphilis. We all got enough of that from our high school gym/ health teachers. Thank you, Miss Bott. Think about hearing the word chancre repeatedly from someone wearing track shorts with contrast binding and striped gym socks pulled over her calves. Sadly, the outfit was so much more troubling than STD’s.

Had Miss Bott bothered to mention the social history of contagious diseases, I could have taken my eyes off the tube socks and actually learned something fascinating. For many years, the theory about the outbreak of syphilis in Renaissance Europe was that it was an extra special bonus prize of Columbus’s discovery of the New World. There was a catastrophic outbreak of syphilis in Naples, Italy in 1495. Treatment of syphilis at the time employed arsenic or mercury. Nothing says health and wellness quite like inhaling mercury vapors! Can you imagine?!

Recent discoveries in the field of paleopathology (the study of the history of diseases) call into question the blame shouldered for centuries by Christopher Columbus. Excavation of a site in Kingston-upon-Hull, revealed that the bodies of at least four monks from around 1450, showed signs of syphilitic infection, such as thickening of the lower leg bones. Without further testing, it cannot be conclusively proven that the monks had the type of syphilis that was sexually transmitted. There is more than one disease caused by various strains of the corkscrew shaped bacteria that cause syphilis.

I personally feel that the field of paleopathology is critical to the future of human health, because understanding the natural mutation and spread of disease could have major impact on the future of medicine. I owe my new interest in the field to poor, dear Manet.

What is the status of syphilis now, you ask? Well, in the U.S. in 1943 there were 575,593 reported cases of syphilis, in 2006, that number was down to 36,935. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of cases decreased sharply. That decrease seems to coincide with the safe sex campaigns that were a response to the AIDS crisis. Currently, the highest number of syphilis cases occur in the south, in poor and urban areas. Education and health care are the key. Profound.

Now look around the room at your co-workers. Are you the only one thinking about syphilis? You are welcome again! Happy Monday!


Joyce Tremel said...

Great topic for a Monday morning!

Anonymous said...

Got my attention, Brenda! The new findings--or questions--about the origins of syphilis are most interesting. So much for accepted wisdom.

Anonymous said...

Next week: the clap.

I always feel intellectually uplifted by your blogs, Brenda. If slightly nauseated sometimes. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Syphilis. Something to think about while we're at work, but not to worry about too much at work -- assuming none of us work in the sex trade, that is.

Anonymous said...

Nancy, LOL!

The PBS show Secrets of the Dead actually did a show about syphilis. Somehow, I didn't realize that PBS ever showed anything but doo-wop and Andre Rieu. Who knew they still had programming?

Anonymous said...

Your image of Miss Bott will stick with me long after I'm still thinking about syphilis. She's got to become a character in one of your novels: Who killed Miss Bott?