Syphilis may not have come from the New World after all

Some say Christopher Columbus brought syphilis back with him from the Americas. But was the so-called "French Disease" already in Europe by the time of his return?

Biology PhD candidate Katherine Wright cracks open this epidemiological cold case in a short but captivating piece currently featured at The Guardian. The article was selected from more than 600 entries as the winner from the category "for professional scientists of postgraduate level and above." The piece serves as a fantastic example of how modern scientific understanding can help demystify history's most notorious cases of widespread death and disease.


It begins:

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.

Read the rest at The Guardian.

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