Where did syphilis come from?

Did Columbus bring the disease
back with him from the New
World, or was it in Europe all
along? Katherine Wright, winner
of the Wellcome Trust science
writing prize 2013, investigates

image

        Unwelcome on board: did
Christopher Columbus and
his sailors transport the bacterium
back from the New World?
Photograph: PRISMA ARCHIVO /
Alamy/Alamy

By Katherine Wright

Last month, Katherine Wright was
awarded the Wellcome Trust
science writing prize at a
ceremony at the Observer’s offices
at Kings Place, London. Wright,
who is studying for a DPhil in
structural biology at Oxford
University, was judged the winner
of category A “for professional
scientists of postgraduate level
and above” from more than 600
entries by a panel including BBC
journalist Maggie Philbin, scientist
and broadcaster Helen Czerski
and the Observer’s Carole
Cadwalladr. “I am absolutely
thrilled to have won the science
writing prize ,” says Wright. “This
experience has inspired me to
continue science writing in the
future.”

THE WINNING ARTICLE: The
Revenge of the Americas by
Katherine Wright
In the 1490s, a gruesome new
disease exploded across Europe. It
moved with terrifying speed.
Within five years of the first
reported cases, among the
mercenary army hired by Charles
VIII of France to conquer Naples,
it was all over the continent and
reaching into north Africa. The
first symptom was a lesion, or
chancre, in the genital region.
After that, the disease slowly
progressed to the increasingly
excruciating later stages. The
infected watched their bodies
disintegrate, with rashes and
disfigurements, while they
gradually descended into
madness. Eventually, deformed
and demented, they died.
Some called it the French disease.
To the French, it was the
Neapolitan disease. The Russians
blamed the Polish. In 1530, an
Italian physician penned an epic
poem about a young shepherd
named Syphilis, who so angered
Apollo that the god struck him
down with a disfiguring malady to
destroy his good looks. It was this
fictional shepherd (rather than
national rivalries) who donated
the name that eventually stuck:
the disease, which first ravaged
the 16th-century world and
continues to affect untold millions
today, is now known as syphilis.
As its many names attest,
contemporaries of the first spread
of syphilis did not know where
this disease had come from. Was
it indeed the fault of the French?
Was it God’s punishment on
earthly sinners?
Another school of thought, less
xenophobic and less religious,
soon gained traction. Columbus’s
historic voyage to the New World
was in 1492. The Italian soldiers
were noticing angry chancres on
their genitals by 1494. What if
Columbus had brought the disease
back to Europe with him as an
unwelcome stowaway aboard the
Pinta or the Niña?
Since the 1500s, we have
discovered a lot more about
syphilis. We know it is caused by
a spiral-shaped bacterium called
Treponema pallidum , and we know
that we can destroy this
bacterium and cure the disease
using antibiotics. (Thankfully we
no longer “treat” syphilis with
poisonous, potentially deadly
mercury, which was used well
into the 19th century.)
However, scientists,
anthropologists, and historians
still disagree about the origin of
syphilis. Did Columbus and his
sailors really transport the
bacterium back from the New
World? Or was it just coincidental
timing, that the first cases were
recorded soon after the
adventurers’ triumphant return to
the Old World? Perhaps syphilis
was already present in the
population, but doctors had only
just begun to distinguish between
syphilis and other disfiguring
illnesses such as leprosy; or
perhaps the disease suddenly
increased in virulence at the end
of the 15th century. The
“Columbian” hypothesis insists
that Columbus is responsible, and
the “pre-Columbian” hypothesis
that he had nothing to do with it.
Much of the evidence to
distinguish between these two
hypotheses comes from the
skeletal record. Late-stage syphilis
causes significant and identifiable
changes in the structure of bone,
including abnormal growths. To
prove that syphilis was already
lurking in Europe before
Columbus returned,
anthropologists would need to
identify European skeletons with
the characteristic syphilitic
lesions, and date those skeletons
accurately to a time before 1493.
This has proved a tricky exercise
in practice. Identifying past
syphilis sufferers in the New
World is straightforward: ancient
graveyards are overflowing with
clearly syphilitic corpses, dating
back centuries before Columbus
was even born. However, in the
Old World, a mere scattering of
pre-Columbian syphilis candidates
have been unearthed.
Are these 50-odd skeletons the
sought-after evidence of pre-
Columbian syphilitics? With such
a small sample size, it is difficult
to definitely diagnose these
skeletons with syphilis. There are
only so many ways bone can be
damaged, and several diseases
produce a bone pattern similar to
syphilis. Furthermore, the dating
methods used can be inexact,
thrown off by hundreds of years
because of a fish-rich diet, for
example.
A study published in 2011 has
systematically compared these
European skeletons, using rigorous
criteria for bone diagnosis and
dating. None of the candidate
skeletons passed both tests. In all
cases, ambiguity in the bone
record or the dating made it
impossible to say for certain that
the skeleton was both syphilitic
and pre-Columbian. In other
words, there is very little
evidence to support the pre-
Columbian hypothesis. It seems
increasingly likely that Columbus
and his crew were responsible for
transporting syphilis from the
New World to the Old.
Of course, Treponema pallidum was
not the only microbial passenger
to hitch a ride across the Atlantic
with Columbus. But most of the
traffic was going the other way:
smallpox, measles, and bubonic
plague were only some of the Old
World diseases which infiltrated
the New World, swiftly
decimating thousands of Native
Americans. Syphilis was not the
French disease, or the Polish
disease. It was the disease – and
the revenge – of the Americas.

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