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The revenge of the Americas

29 Oct, 2013

Katherine Wright won in the professional scientist category of this year’s Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize. Her winning entry was published in the Observer on Sunday and has attracted hundreds of comments and discussion (including a few salty limericks) from readers. Here is Katherine’s article in full.

Did Christopher Columbus bring syphilis back from the New World?

Did Christopher Columbus bring syphilis back from the New World?

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.

As its many names attest, contemporaries of the first spread of syphilis did not know where this disease had come from. Was it indeed the fault of the French? Was it God’s punishment on earthly sinners?

Another school of thought, less xenophobic and less religious, soon gained traction. Columbus’s historic voyage to the New World was in 1492. The Italian soldiers were noticing angry chancres on their genitals by 1494. What if Columbus had brought the disease back to Europe with him as an unwelcome stowaway aboard the Pinta or the Niña?

Since the 1500s, we have discovered a lot more about syphilis. We know it is caused by a spiral-shaped bacterium called Treponema pallidum, and we know that we can destroy this bacterium and cure the disease using antibiotics. (Thankfully we no longer “treat” syphilis with poisonous, potentially deadly mercury, which was used well into the 19th century.)

However, scientists, anthropologists, and historians still disagree about the origin of syphilis. Did Columbus and his sailors really transport the bacterium back from the New World? Or was it just coincidental timing, that the first cases were recorded soon after the adventurers’ triumphant return to the Old World? Perhaps syphilis was already present in the population, but doctors had only just begun to distinguish between syphilis and other disfiguring illnesses such as leprosy; or perhaps the disease suddenly increased in virulence at the end of the 15th century. The “Columbian” hypothesis insists that Columbus is responsible, and the “pre-Columbian” hypothesis that he had nothing to do with it.

Much of the evidence to distinguish between these two hypotheses comes from the skeletal record. Late-stage syphilis causes significant and identifiable changes in the structure of bone, including abnormal growths. To prove that syphilis was already lurking in Europe before Columbus returned, anthropologists would need to identify European skeletons with the characteristic syphilitic lesions, and date those skeletons accurately to a time before 1493.

This has proved a tricky exercise in practice. Identifying past syphilis sufferers in the New World is straightforward: ancient graveyards are overflowing with clearly syphilitic corpses, dating back centuries before Columbus was even born. However, in the Old World, a mere scattering of pre-Columbian syphilis candidates have been unearthed.

Are these 50-odd skeletons the sought-after evidence of pre-Columbian syphilitics? With such a small sample size, it is difficult to definitely diagnose these skeletons with syphilis. There are only so many ways bone can be damaged, and several diseases produce a bone pattern similar to syphilis. Furthermore, the dating methods used can be inexact, thrown off by hundreds of years because of a fish-rich diet, for example.

A study published in 2011 has systematically compared these European skeletons, using rigorous criteria for bone diagnosis and dating. None of the candidate skeletons passed both tests. In all cases, ambiguity in the bone record or the dating made it impossible to say for certain that the skeleton was both syphilitic and pre-Columbian. In other words, there is very little evidence to support the pre-Columbian hypothesis. It seems increasingly likely that Columbus and his crew were responsible for transporting syphilis from the New World to the Old.

Of course, Treponema pallidum was not the only microbial passenger to hitch a ride across the Atlantic with Columbus. But most of the traffic was going the other way: smallpox, measles, and bubonic plague were only some of the Old World diseases which infiltrated the New World, swiftly decimating thousands of Native Americans. Syphilis was not the French disease, or the Polish disease. It was the disease – and the revenge – of the Americas.

Katherine Wright

Katherine WrightThis is an edited version of Katherine’s original entry. Views expressed are the author’s own.

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in association with the Guardian and the Observer and read our ‘How I write about science‘ series of tips for aspiring science writers.

Read all the shortlisted entries from 2011 and 2012 in our archive.

Image credits

Top: Christopher Columbus, surrounded by a crowd of people, is about to embark on his ship, August 1492. By Cassé, 1830/1840. Wellcome Library.
Above: Katherine Wright, photographed by Thomas SG Farnetti.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Matthew Smith permalink
    29 Oct, 2013 9:27 am

    Having just given a lecture on the Columbian Exchange, I hardly think that syphilis, even if it did come from the Americas, counts as any kind of ‘revenge’ for the absolutely catastrophic impact Old World disease had on the New. There is nothing terribly wrong with this kind of history, but to even imply that syphilis restored the ‘deadly disease’ balance between Old and New is somewhat irresponsible. Native peoples across the Americas are still coping in health terms with the Conquest, only chronic diseases, such as diabetes, alcoholism and heart disease, have supplanted most of the infectious ones. Simply the views of a prickly, possibly oversensitive Canadian with a wee bit of Mi’kmaq blood in his veins…

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