3 min

Stalking us across the centuries

Syphilis is an age-old enemy

“Nor end your sufferings here; a strange disease/ And most obscene, shall on your bodies seize.”

* Girolamo Fracastoro, from his 1525 work Syphilis; Or A Poetical History Of The French Disease


Syphilis may be enjoying a comeback in Toronto in recent years, but the disease itself has been tormenting the human race for centuries.

From its first confirmed appearance in the 15th-century, syphilis has been the inspiration for innumerable treatments and discoveries along the winding road that led to modern medicine. From basic ointments laced with arsenic substances to the discovery of bacteria to the invention of penicillin, syphilis saw it all.

“He who knows the history of syphilis knows the history of medicine,” wrote Dr Neil Clancy from the Division Of Infectious Diseases at the University Of Florida College Of Medicine at the beginning of his 1999 research paper on the history of syphilis.

The origins of syphilis – whether it came from the old world or the new world – have been widely debated. There are several descriptions by ancient Greek and Roman authors that could indicate that syphilis saw the dawn of civilization, but none are specific enough to be sure.

In the 16th-century Europeans were quick to blame it on their neighbours and it was variously referred to as the Venetian, Naples and the French disease. Others pointed to Christopher Columbus. “The first fruit the Spaniards brought from the new world was syphilis,” wrote Voltaire.

What is clear was that syphilis had a secure foothold in Europe by the middle of the Renaissance period. Referred to as a “mysterious affliction,” it made its way across Europe, aided by the movement of armies from country to country. Its symptoms were the mark of its movement – all three stages of which were on record by the 1530s.

Primary syphilis, which begins within 21 days of infection, is marked by the appearance of painless chancres or blisters at the point of contact, usually on the genitals, rectum or mouth. Secondary syphilis appears as a rash, like measles or chicken pox on the body, and often includes chancres that grow into moist ulcers teeming with infectious spirochetes. The final phase, tertiary syphilis, attacks the cardiovascular system, central nervous system and the brain, ultimately turning it to mush; an altogether charming progression, leading to eventual insanity or death.

In the 16th- and 17th-centuries, school children were given tours of public syphilis treatment facilities to teach them what happened to those who were unable to control their “lascivious passions.” By 1890, syphilis was well established as a venereal disease and with that conclusion came the stigma that only prostitutes and sinners were susceptible.

In 1905, the culprit was finally identified: the bacteria Treponema pallidum. In 1908, Nobel-prize winning researcher Paul Ehrlich discovered that the drug arsephen-amine attacked the syphilis bacteria and was heralded as the ultimate cure.

It took a year to come up with an accurate dosage – between 20 and 40 small dosages a year to cure syphilis – as the initial injection was proving to be lethal, and frequently the symptoms would reoccur within one year. This medicine was named Salversan, the first effective cure. A more common name for it was Treatment 606 as it was reportedly Enrich’s 606th attempt at finding a cure.

Penicillin was developed in 1928, and was on the market in 1945 curing syphilitics everywhere. But an effective treatment hasn’t stopped the spread of the disease.

A new public awareness campaign refers to syphilis as “that ’70s disease,” as free love brought on an increase in cases. Jo-Ann Ackery, manager of Toronto Public Health’s STD program, wonders if there was an increase during the bathhouse boom in the early ’80s.

“People were more open about their sexuality. People weren’t worried about STDs like syphilis and gonorrhea because they were treatable,” says Ackery. “Then AIDS came along.”

According to Toronto Public Health, syphilis rates in 1991, the earliest reliable statistics for the city, were higher than they are today. From then it began a steady decline, although rates have risen somewhat in the past few years.

“Its lowest was 1998 and then it plateaued for a few years,” says Ackery. “It began increasing in 2002. There wasn’t a fear because it was treatable.”

According to data published by the AIDS Committee Of Toronto, syphilis cases have jumped from 31 in 2001 to 308 in 2003, of which 95 percent of new cases were men.

* The Hassle Free Clinic is now at 66 Gerrard St, second floor. For men’s hours call (416) 922-0603; for women’s hours call (416) 922-0566.