Fracastorius, the man who named syphilis

portrait of Fracastoro
Titian (1528), National Gallery, London

One of the great names in medical history, Girolamo Fracastoro appears in the National Gallery painting by Titian in full regalia. We owe him the name syphilis, derived from his poem (1530) Syphilis sive morbus gallicus (“Syphilis or The French Disease”) in which a shepherd boy named Syphilus was punished by Apollo with a horrible disease that could be treated with mercury. Perhaps brought to Europe by the crew of Christopher Columbus, it spread to Italy by the invading French troops and was accordingly named morbus gallicus or the French disease. Some scholars have speculated that Titian may have painted the portrait in exchange for himself being treated for syphilis.

Fracastorius was a polymath, physician, poet, and scholar. Descended from a patrician Veronese family, he was born there around 1476–1478. He studied literature, mathematics, astronomy, geography, philosophy and medicine at the academy in Padua, where immediately after receiving his degree in 1502 he became instructor in logic. In 1509 he returned to Verona, where he dedicated himself to his studies and developed a private medical practice, treating patients from all over Italy. Though interested in politics, he never held public office, but became widely known for his erudition and competence in liberal arts, philosophy, natural sciences, and medicine. His work De Contagione (1546) contains the first scientific suggestion that epidemic diseases could be transmitted by contagion caused by a different type of rapidly multiplying minute body. He speculated they were transmitted either by direct contact or through the air or by material such as soiled clothes or linen, which he called fomites. He also gave the first description for typhus.

Appointed in 1545 as physician to the Council of Trent, he influenced the transfer of the Council from Trent to Bologna because of the danger of plague. He suffered a fatal stroke in 1553 and was buried in Verona, where a statue in his honor was erected in 1555.

 


 

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief