Syphilis: “A Night With Venus, and a Lifetime with Mercury”


( Photo credit: Dreadful Diseases and Terrible Treatments)

What is Syphilis:

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that can be spread through unprotected sexual contact as well as from mothers to their unborn babies. It wasn’t until 1905 that scientists discovered that the microorganism to blame was Treponema pallidum. There are multiple theories regarding the origins of Syphilis, but nothing concrete has been established. It is believed that it could have been spread from mercenaries who fought in the French invasion of Naples, or that the colonizers on Columbus’s journey had possibly brought it back to Europe with them upon their return from the Americas. By the 1500’s the infection had spread rapidly around Europe and was affecting about 10% of the adult population. So what could you expect to see from someone who has been unfortunate enough to contract this nasty venereal disease? For starters, during the first phase, it is common for the patient to be afflicted with painful sores on their skin and fevers. During the second stage the individual may have flu-like symptoms that can subside for a period. It is not necessarily uncommon for symptoms to have intervals of dormancy. The final stage, known as the tertiary stage, is marked by the horrors of mental deterioration and severe disfigurement. If left untreated, Syphilis can cause brain damage (in the form of dementia), the bones and muscles can be attacked by soft tumours which make movement difficult, and in severe instances, large pustules form on the surface of the skin and the nasal cartilage collapses. This leaves the person permanently disfigured for life. Syphilis has gained a series of nicknames, but one, “the Great Imitator,” reveals a lot about the manifestation of the symptoms that occur. Because the disease has the ability to lay dormant, and due to the fact that the first stages are rather broad expressions of illness, a person was often misdiagnosed in the past because physicians found it difficult to tell the difference between Syphilis and other sicknesses. In fact, many people who suffered from syphilis were thought to have Leprosy, another bacterial infection known to disfigure the body.


(Photo credit: Dreadful Diseases and Terrible Treatments)

Early Treatments:

People everywhere were desperate to find a cure. The permanent disfigurement made people social outcasts, faced with ridicule and mockery. By the 16th century mercury, used as a cure-all, had become the primary treatment for Syphilis. Galen’s theory of the four humors and the need to balance the body was the main inspiration at play. Elemental mercury could be applied to the body in a series of ways which often led to various horror-spa illustrations (as seen below). The metal could be mixed with animal fats and rubbed into the skin, inhaled as a vapor, used in baths, injected into the urethra, or swallowed directly. The metal would irritate people’s skin, cause sickness, excessive salivation, kidney failure, and could lead to mercury poising. Girolamo Fracastoro, an influential figure during the Italian Renaissance, wrote a poem about Syphilis. In one passage, he described the thought process for the encouragement of excessive salivation. He wrote, “Very soon you will feel the ferments of the disease dissolve themselves in your mouth in a disgusting flow of saliva, and you will see the virus, even the virus, evacuate itself at your feet in rivers of saliva.” Not a pretty sight in the slightest. It remains unclear whether or not mercury treatments actually had a positive effect. Mercury, like other metals, has the ability to kill bacteria in vitro, but the human body is a different environment completely. Patients at the time who claimed to have seen improvements to their condition could have moved into a phase of the disease where the symptoms were less severe, sometimes even close to nonexistent.


( Photo credit: Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything)

A New Nose:

Many people who had their noses rot away tried to find ways of disguising their disfigurement. Some preferred to cover the lower half of their faces with a scarf, while others wore an incredibly obvious fake nose attached to a headpiece. For some, these options just weren’t cutting it, and that is where Gaspare Tagliacozzi comes into the story. He was one of Italy’s most popular surgeons during the 16th century, and he had developed a new type of surgery that he referred to as, “the surgery of defective parts.” His method for reconstructing a nose was very simple in thought. He would cut a rectangular flap into the forearm of his patient. Tagliacozzi understood that the tissue would die if he were to fasten it to the person’s face without the development of proper blood-flow. Instead, he had to attach three sides of the rectangle, leaving one side connected to the person’s arm for 2 to 3 weeks. This allowed time for the capillaries and veins to make connections, ensuring that the new nasal tissue would survive. While waiting, the person’s arm would have to remain up by their face. Bandages were often used as a means of aiding the patient with the task of keeping their arm in place. After that time period was over, the surgeon could then detach the remainder of the flap and shape the nose. This operation had to be conducted without anesthesia and the risk of infection was very high. The disfigurement that Syphilis caused though helped to create the need for some of the first reconstructive cosmetic surgical procedures.


( Photo credit: Crucial Interventions: An Illustrated Treatise on the Principles and Practice of Nineteenth Century Surgery)

Syphilis Today:

Alexander Fleming, in the 20th century, decided to dedicate his life to bacteriology after serving the the first World War. During a routine experiment, an airborne fungus found itself in a petri dish prepared with staphylococci. He noticed that the bacteria did not grow where the fungus was. A decade later, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were able to isolate Penicillin G from the mold originally found in Mr. Fleming’s lab. The first true antibiotic, Penicillin was born. In 1945 all three men were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for their role in medical innovation. Other drugs were used prior to Penicillin, but they soon became obsolete. Between 1940 and 1975, Penicillin had reduced the percentage of deaths from Syphilis by a stunning 98%! Syphilis, although controllable now, is still a deadly venereal disease that kills people all around the world. Hopefully as time goes on, preventive methods and treatments for Syphilis can be extended more readily to those in need around the globe.


( Photo credit: Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History)

<If that didn’t make you thankful for modern medicine, then I don’t know what will!>

Until Next Time-




  • Barnett, Richard. Crucial Interventions: An Illustrated Treatise on the Principles and Practice of Nineteenth Century Surgery. London: Thames and Hudson, 2015.
  • Bizarre Victoria. “The No Nose Club.” Posted January 13, 2017. Accessed September 27, 2018.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Syphilis-CDC Fact Sheet.” Last Modified June 13, 2017. Accessed September 27, 2018.
  • Gerald, Michael. The Drug Book. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2013.
  • Hollingham, Richard. Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008.
  • Kang, Lydia and Pedersen, Nate. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York: Workman Publishing, 2017.
  • Moore, Jonathan. Dreadful Diseases and Terrible Treatments: The Story of Medicine Through the Ages. Alabama: Sweet Water Press, 2017.
  • Parker, Steve. Medicine: A Definitive Illustrated History. New York: DK Publishing, 2016.
  •  “Syphilis, or the French Disease,” by Girolamo Fracastoro. Source Book of Medical History. Notes by Logan Clendening. New York: Dover Publishing, 1942.

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