Half a millennium ago, in 1530, Syphilis was a beloved literary character created by a gentleman from Verona.
The eminent Italian physician, poet, mathematician, geographer, and astronomer Hieronymus Fracastorius (1478-1553) coined the word syphilis while composing an epic poem called "Syphilis Sive Morbus Gallicus" ("Syphilis, or the French Disease"). Written in Latin, his lyrical verses describe a mythical young shepherd named Syphilus, or Sifilo, who rejected and, hence, insulted the Sun god. In response, the deity strikes Syphilus down with the dreaded malady.
No one quite knows where Fracastorius came up with this name for the unfortunate shepherd but some have hypothesized he borrowed it from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which features a character named Sipylus, the eldest son of Niobe who lived near Mount Sypilon in Asia Minor; others believe Fracastorius was influenced by Virgil’s Aeneid.
But syphilis was much more than myth in both Europe and the Americas, where it appeared with a vengeance beginning in the 1490s. Some historians have argued that Christopher Columbus’s crew imported syphilis from Hispaniola, or Haiti, as they discovered new lands and sexual partners. The infection only amplified in 1494 when King Charles VIII of France, along with an army of mercenaries from Spain and other European countries, attacked the kingdom of Naples. Other scholars, however, insist that syphilis was in Europe long before Columbus’s voyage but was either unrecognized or confused with other diseases, such as leprosy.
Nevertheless, as sexually transmitted diseases are want to do, it spread like wildfire—or, at least, wild behavior. Whatever its origin, there can be no question that by the close of the 15th century, a severe syphilis pandemic stalked Europe, from its most populated cities to its most remote villages.
Initially, syphilis was referred to as "the Spanish disease," "French pox," or the "Neapolitan evil," depending largely upon those charged with labeling it and those being labeled. Others simply called it the "Great Pox," in distinction to that other contagious scourge, "smallpox." But so popular was Fracastorius’ poem, which remains revered for its accurate descriptions of the disease’s symptoms, natural history, and potential treatments, that the moniker syphilis quickly took hold in describing the infection we now know is caused by a microbe called Treponema pallidum.
What seems most extraordinary about these early cases of syphilis was how seriously ill it made people and the high death rates it incurred during even its early stages. Physicians announced that they were encountering a new and previously unknown condition and by 1500 the medical literature was filled with accounts of its symptoms and clinical course.rn
Still a major public health problem around the globe, modern medicine is armed with the means to successfully treat syphilis. Yet because of its sexually transmitted nature, as late as 1934 syphilis was a word that the Surgeon General of the United States could not even utter on a national radio broadcast. Hopefully by articulating its once unmentionable name on the radio today, as well as discussing its nature and cause, we can look forward to preventing it entirely.