Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

A view of syphilis from the 19th century


Preparation and use of guayaco for treating syphilis, ca. 1570
Jan van der (Joannes Stradanus) Straet
with engraving by Philip Galle


Sectional reprint of “Of the Venereal Disease, or Syphilis” from Modern Practice of Physic by Robert Thomas, 1822

The part of the world where this disease first originated has been much disputed, some looking upon it as of French extraction, and others supposing it could have been brought from America by the soldiers of Christopher Columbus. Be that as it may, it is certain that it was first observed at the siege of Naples in the year 1493, and that from thence it spread very rapidly throughout France, Spain, Germany, and other kingdoms.

The syphilitic poison is peculiar to the human species, and produces no effect whatever on any of the brute creation, as has incontestably been proved by repeated experiments, from whence we might infer that it was intended not only as a check against any deviation from the rules of connubial chastity, but likewise as an incentive . . . to the young, to form, at an early period of life, a satisfactory and honorable alliance, by which they may be enabled to gratify the passions implanted in them by nature, and propagate the species, without the risk of disease.

Some practitioners of the present day go so far as to doubt the existence of this virus, and even to deny the specific power of mercury.

Syphilitic poison cannot, as happens in other eruptive complaints, such as smallpox, measles, etc., be conveyed in the form of vapor, or in other words, by breathing air which is contaminated by a person laboring under it. To give rise to syphilis, it is necessary that the matter or poison should be applied to some part which is soft or covered with a mucous membrane, or else to some place where there exists an excoriation, ulcer, or wound.



Highlighted in Frontispiece Summer 2012 – Volume 4, Issue 3

Sections  |  Infectious Diseases

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