Disease History

Treponemal bacteria—this famous microbe is the cause of Pinta (Treponema carateum), Yaws (Treponema pallidum pertenue), Bejel (Treponema pallidum endernieum), and Syphilis (Treponema pallidum pallidum). Syphilis is, most commonly, a sexually transmitted disease that has evolved from these other forms of the treponemal bacteria. Although syphilis is primarily transmitted through sexual interaction, the disease can also be spread from a mother to her fetus—this is called congenital syphilis. The study of treponemal diseases is so vast that there is an entire subfield of medicine that is solely dedicated to syphilis.

The origin of this devastating disease is a controversial topic of discussion. However, there are three major hypotheses as to where syphilis originated.

Columbian Hypothesis – This theory explains that Columbus and his discovery crew brought syphilis (or some other related treponemal disease) back to Europe from the “New World.” In the late 1400’s, there was a giant outbreak of syphilis but, there is a major lack of skeletal evidence showing any type of syphilitic lesions in “New World” skeletons.

Pre-Columbian Hypothesis – Looking at the disease through this angle, syphilis was already present in Europe but was misidentified as a form of “venereal leprosy.” However, leprosy cannot be transmitted though contact (sexual or casual). Unlike the Columbian hypothesis, there has been a great range of claims to finding osteological evidence for syphilis in pre-Columbian European and Asian skeletons.

Unitarian Hypothesis – This states that the four treponemal diseases (listed above) are variations on a single disease that varies by climate and social conditions. Therefore, the disease is ancient and has existed long before the other hypotheses.

*Not So Fun Fact* It is greatly theorized that people such as Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzsche, Vincent van Gogh, Al Capone, and even Adolf Hitler were infected with syphilis.

Breakdown and Transmission

Treponemal diseases come from spirochetes. Spirochetes are an ancient and distinct group of bacteria that are incredibly diverse. Each treponemal disease has three stages. Primary, where a wet and oozing sore develops at the place of infection and the individual is highly contagious. This stage is painless and usually goes away on its own. If the infection continues, the body goes into the Secondary Stage. Here, an infectious rash covers a large portion of the body and the lymph nodes begin to swell. This stage also has the ability to go away on its own. However, in the Tertiary Stage, symptoms can reappear anywhere from thirty to fifty years later. All systems and parts of the body can be infected in this stage.

Following these stages, in the Primary Stage, syphilis infected individuals develop chancres initially. They can form anywhere on the body from the tongue to the genitals. The Secondary Stage comes with a body rash and swollen lymph nodes. Tertiary Syphilis can result in many deformities, neurological degradation, and even death.


Syphilis is often called “The Great Imitator.” The disease is called by this name because if can affect any part of the body system and mimic a variety of other diseases in the process. Symptoms of syphilis can include: skin sores, rashes, general fever, malaise, lymph swellings, heart and cardiovascular disease, weight loss, hair loss, headaches, stiff neck, vision and/or hearing problems, blindness, nerve damage, paralysis, and even insanity.


Before the invention of Penicillin in the 1940’s, many doctors used treatments of mercury and sarsaparilla to treat syphilis. Mercury was used to treat the disease by means of rubbing on the skin, oral conception, and injection. Infected individuals were also subjected to fumigation chambers, where their heads were sticking out, where mercury was vaporized surrounding their bodies. Mercury was by far the lease effective way of treating the disease. While these old treatments might have temporarily provided a small sliver of relief to syphilitic victims, nothing was able to treat the disease like the modern invention of Penicillin.

Cited Links:

Cover Photo:http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/revealed-schools-warned-take-action-2667263

Treponemal Bacteria:http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK7716/

Three Major Hypotheses:http://www.scienceclarified.com/dispute/Vol-2/Historic-Dispute-Did-syphilis-originate-in-the-New-World-from-which-it-was-brought-to-Europe-by-Christopher-Columbus-and-his-crew.html

Not So Fun Fact: http://www.famouspeoplearehuman.com/famous-people-syphilis.htm


In Text Photo: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/183/17/2015.figures-only

In Text Photo: http://www.globalrph.com/antibiotic/syphilis.htm

In Text Photo:http://frontierpsychiatrist.co.uk/general-paralysis-of-the-insane-and-psychiatrys-only-nobel-prize/

Treatments of Mercury:http://www.academia.dk/Blog/syphilis/