The Things People Did To Fight Syphilis Were Utterly Horrifying

Syphilis, today, is minor and treatable. In the past, though, it was an incurable diseases that caused insanity, rotting flesh, and death. It's understandable that nations took drastic measures to try to stop it — but their efforts resulted in a 400-year reign of terror.


Syphilis hit Europe at the end of the 1400s. In some ways, it terrified people more than the plague. The plague, at least, killed people quickly. Syphilis opened weeping sores and greyish eruptions that started at one spot and spread all over the body. As the sores got deeper, the flesh dropped away, leaving deep craters in the flesh. The disease, like leprosy, seemed to start at the extremities. Some accounts have victims missing eyes, noses, and lips. Others mention missing hands and feet. In the final stages, the disease attacked the brain, driving people insane. Not every person afflicted with syphilis suffered all of these symptoms, but even one of them caused extreme suffering.

The disease seemed to first appear among French troops in Naples, conveniently allowing the French and the Italians to blame each other for its origins. As it swept across Europe, learned people gathered in conferences trying to figure out what it was, and what could be done about it. Give them credit where credit is due, they figured out the transmission pattern early. One physician wrote, "Men get it from doing it with women in their vulvas."

So that settled that. The problem, going forward, was stopping people from "doing it with women." Throughout Europe, cities such as Edinburgh, banned brothels and armies banned the euphemistically named "camp followers." It didn't work.


At that point, things got awful. Whenever foreigners were found to have syphilis, they were sent back to their own countries. When the wealthy had it, they were confined to their homes. When the poor had it, they were sent to hospitals, which would admit them, but which often had a tradition of publicly whipping each patient before they came in, and after they went out. Considering there was no cure for syphilis, and people sometimes had repeated attacks, this could mean a lot of whippings. Anyone found disobeying the order to report to a hospital was executed. In Paris, people found guilty of sticking around with syphilis were thrown into the Seine to drown.


The infected population grew, and the measures to counter the disease grew more selective. Although the rich were subject to some restrictions, the most popular targets of stricter laws were beggars and sex workers. Paris, at one point, ordered all able-bodied beggars out of the city - presumably to starve in the country. Because a plague of rotting bodies spelled the end of an army, any sex worker caught within eight kilometers of an army had her nose and ears slit. Hospitals expanded, but as they attempted to accommodate more people, they grew worse. Noblemen who toured, for example, the Hospital at Bicêtre called it a hell-hole and said that the patients would be better off in a barn. Do-gooders, meanwhile, tried to improve it. During one spasm of reform, workers were sent to collect years of accumulated garbage from the rooms and put in new curtains. So that was good. Still, the hospital overcrowding problem increased. In 1703, the Salpêtrière hospital housed 4,500 sex workers. There was no way to keep conditions decent under that kind of strain.

And then there was the actual treatment for syphilis. It was mercury — eaten, inhaled, and rubbed into the skin. By the 1800s, people were not ignorant of what mercury could do to a person, but no other treatment seemed to work as well. Patients were exposed over and over until their symptoms cleared up, or they died.


Syphilis was a public health hazard into the 1900s, and still subject to sometimes over-the-top medical responses. The discovery of a cure, penicillin, ended not only a terrible disease, but a four-hundred-year public health nightmare.

Images: Wellcome Images

[Sources: Infection of the Innocents, French Society 1598-1715, Syphilis, Sex, and Fear.]


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