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THE BEGINNING OF A MYTH

Chapter I

   Suddenly, out of a blue sky, "syphilis" sprang upon Europeans in the early years of the Sixteenth century or the closing years of the Fifteenth and swept over the world slaying thousands. "Scientists" have greatly puzzled their feeble gray matter to account for the origin of this terrible plague. Most of them are now content to place the responsibility for the disease upon the Indians who met Columbus when he discovered Haiti. Indeed Becker says that only a few die-hards have failed to accept this hypothesis. He says it was introduced into Spain in 1493 when Columbus and his sailors returned. At least "there is an abundance of historical and biographical writing to show that Spanish physicians recognized the disease that year and that they appreciated that the malady was one entirely new to them. They called this newly encountered ailment the disease of Espanola (now Haiti), after the island upon which the great navigator's sailors became infected."

   Both Becker and Parran tell us that there is evidence that Columbus, himself, was infected. Parran says "Kemble points out that in the early months of 1494, during Columbus second voyage, he began having attacks of fever, possibly the febrile secondary stage of syphilis. During the third voyage in 1498 he developed a 'severe attack of gout.' Since Columbus was an abstemious man; it does not seem probable that he suffered from the gout of the intemperate, especially since the inflammation was widespread and not confined to one or two of the smaller joints, as gout usually is. (He does not say, "as gout always is." Author). During this voyage, also, the first evidence of mental disorder appeared. He began to hear voices and to regard himself as 'ambassador of God' *** In spite of his disabilities Columbus made a last voyage and returned in 1504 so ill that he had to be carried ashore with his whole body dropsical from the chest downward, like that which is caused by injury to the valves of the heart, his limbs paralyzed and his brain affected — all symptoms of late, fatal syphilis."

   Doctors are better at making long-range diagnoses than in diagnosing living patients who are before them and whom they have just examined. However, I trust I will not be charged with desecrating the sacred temple of medicine if I point out that "attacks of fever" may and do occasionally develop in those who are not in the "febrile secondary stage of syphilis," that "hearing voices" and thinking oneself "ambassador of God" belongs to all religions and is older than recorded history; that the dropsy, paralysis and brain affection that are so confidently said to have been the effects of syphilis, may have been, and most likely were, due to ship dropsy (malnutritional edema) which was so common among sailors in those days.

   According to the myth we are here discussing, the Spanish sailors passed the disease on to the whores of Spain, who, in turn passed it on to the Spanish soldiers. Some of these soldiers were hired out as mercenaries to Naples (Italy) and others to Charles VIII of France. Charles invaded Naples the next year and "syphilis" became epidemic among his soldiers. Despite his military successes, his soldiers became panic stricken and "fled out of Italy," "not fearful of their human enemies but craven creatures before that mysterious plague that laid so many of them low."

   Becker says, "the initial epidemic of syphilis dates definitely from the return of Charles' warriors to their respective countries. This exodus from Italy, combined with the loose morals of the times, resulted in the unusually rapid spread of the disease to France, Germany, and Switzerland that year; to Holland and Greece the following year; to England and Scotland within two years; and to Hungary and Russia within four years." European sailors carried the infection to Africa and Asia so that "the disease was recognized in India in 1498, in Southern China in 1505, and in Japan in 1569." Patriotism leads men to do strange things. No country desires to accept the blame for the origin and spread of this "new plague," and each country blamed the other for it. The French called it the Neapolitan disease because they "met it" in Naples; the Italians called it the French or Spanish Disease; the English "caught" it from the French and, hence, called it the French Pox, the Turks called it the "disease of the Franks" (christians), and the Spaniards called it the disease of Espanola; Morbus Gallicus, or French sickness, was its accepted title for a century or more.

   In 1530, an Italian physician, wrote a poem about a shepherd boy named Syphilus who was afflicted with Morbus Gallicus because he had insulted Apollo. The name Syphilis, as Parran puts it, "was acceptable, says Abraham, because it was a new word casting no aspersions upon any nations."

   Paracelsus called the "new" disease, "French Gonorrhea," and gave its origin, "the coition of a leprous Frenchman with an impudent whore who had venereal bubos." More than five hundred names had been applied to the "disease" up to the time it was agreed to call it "syphilis."

   What was this strange new disease that spread over Europe like a wild fire, laid men low in a few days and routed victorious armies, and that is said to have "attacked its victims with a violence unknown today?" The "disease"' is said to have been "as contagious as smallpox" and to have "spread both through venereal contact and through the ordinary processes of living which, even among the noble, would seem by our standards astoundingly intimate and distressingly filthy."

   The patient had high fever, delirium, violent headaches and pains in the bones, horrible sores, and bone ulcers. We are told that "death was not uncommon during the secondary stage." Dr. Becker says it was "often so severe as to cause death."

   Now, there is not a physician living who ever saw a case of so-called "syphilis" that even remotely resembled the above description. They simply do not describe the same disease today when they describe "syphilis." To account for the difference they tell us, to use the words of Parran, that "new diseases always are devastating. An infection in a virgin soil is more severe than among peoples who have suffered with it for generations and built up a partial immunity." However he is not sure whether the early severity of the disease was due to "the lack of resistance" of Europeans, or "to the exceptional virulence of the early strain of syphilis." Becker tells us that its severity died down after fifty years, so that although at the beginning "Europeans were attacked in a more serious manner; they became very ill and often died in the early stages of the malady," "this virtually never happens at the present time." He adds that "it has been more and more inactive up to the present time, which is a fact of importance. It is now possible to contract the disease and have it for years with no visible manifestations."

   There is not a physician living who could prove that Morbus Gallicus (or the great pox) of the Sixteenth Century is the father of what is now called "syphilis." Nor can they be sure what Morbus Gallicus was. The reader should know that the physicians of that day had almost no knowledge of human anatomy, still less of physiology, little knowledge of pathology, and that diagnosis was very crude, differential diagnosis almost unknown. The National Encyclopedia says that "smallpox, or variola, in ancient writings, is confused with other skin eruptions, such as measles, syphilis, (great pox), and chickenpox." It was over a hundred and fifty years after the great outbreak of Morbus Gallicus, when Thomas Sydenham, the English Hippocrates, who practiced medicine in London from 1663 to 1689, first differentiated measles from smallpox. He is also credited with having been the first to describe scarlatina. Into the epidemic of Morbus Gallicus of that day there were thrown all the feverish and eruptive disorders the sensuous and filthy, vermin infested near-men-and-women who inhabited the continental pig stye and universal whore-house that was the Europe of that day, were afflicted with; just as colds, pneumonia, typhoid fever, sleeping sickness, menengitis, tubercular flare-ups, and other troubles were called influenza in 1918-19.

   Becker says, "There is some dispute as to whether the plague which attacked the soldiers was syphilis alone or a combination of syphilis with some other malady." Parran says, "Even if it were true that Columbus' crew had returned in 1493 with the infection, it is denied that the disease could have spread with such rapidity as to have devastated Charles' army at Naples in 1495. The almost universal reports of its spread are attributed to the fact that those years showed an extreme epidemic prevalence and because of a confused terminology among the current pests, pestilences, and contagions, there might well have been on epidemic of many diseases. Plague and typhus, for example, were known to be prevalent in Europe of that day; they followed the armies then as they do now."

   He further says; "Significance also is attached to the coincidence of the outbreak of alleged syphilis over Europe with the abolition of the Order of St. Lazarus and the scattering of the inmates of the 19,000 leper houses. Leprosy and syphilis continued to be assimilated in popular prejudice during a long period." He speaks of "the origin of syphilis and its history, which gradually emerges from 'ambiguity and rumor.'"

   No physician can separate fact from fancy in this cloud of mystery, rumor and doubt. But of one thing we may be sure (this will be proven in a subsequent chapter); the physicians of that day could not possibly have told whether a patient did or did not have "syphilis." They lacked all knowledge of the necessary tests and examinations. What they did was to build a myth that has assumed for us the appearance of reality.

 

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