Origins of Syphilis


Debate about the origins of syphilis has continued for nearly 500 years, ever since early sixteenth-century Europeans blamed each other, referring to it variously as the Venetian, Naples, or French disease. One hypothesis assumes a New World origin, and holds that sailors who accompanied Columbus and other explorers brought the disease back to Europe. Another explanation is that syphilis was always present in the Old World but was not identified as a separate disease from leprosy before about A.D. 1500. A third possibility is that syphilis developed in both hemispheres from the related diseases bejel and yaws. New studies by paleopathologists Bruce and Christine Rothschild favor a New World origin. Ancient and medieval sources have long been cited as evidence for syphilis in Europe before Columbus, but none of the descriptions by Greek and Roman authors are specific enough to be certain. Returning crusaders brought “Saracen ointment” containing mercury for treating “lepers,” an appropriate medication for syphilis but not for leprosy. Thirteenth- and fourteenth-century A.D. references to “venereal leprosy” may also indicate syphilis because leprosy is not sexually transmitted. But the first unambiguous descriptions of syphilis begin around 1500. These may either reflect growing medical knowledge and ability to differentiate syphilis from other diseases or signal its arrival from the New World.