Europeans with Syphilis

Date: 1500
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images


This early sixteenth century source shows a woman and a man in Europe infected with syphilis and doctors trying to treat them with mercury. Historians of epidemics have long debated whether syphilis, the venereal disease caused by the spirochete Treponema pallidum, was exclusively of New World origin or whether the strains brought back to Europe as early as 1493 mixed with similar Old World diseases to create a more deadly form. Regardless of its exact progeny, the late fifteenth century spread of syphilis did occur directly in the wake of 1492 and reflects the novel interconnectedness of the post-Columbian world.

Mercury, which the doctors in this image are giving to these patients, was the most common treatment for syphilis in Europe, administered topically on sores and also internally in the form of pills. The extremely toxic quick silver did indeed do much to remove the pustules of syphilis, but it often killed the patient as well. The classical medical theories of this period endorsed the idea that diseases were caused by an imbalance of the humors, and syphilis was believed to be the result of salivary excess. One symptom of mercury poisoning is extreme drooling, up to several pints a day, and this was erroneously seen as proof of mercury's healing power. Although the shortcomings of humoral theory seem obvious today, it was Europe's best contemporary paradigm for attempting to understand and cope with a new and unprecedented disease.

Reference: Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972.

CITATION: Medecins soignant des syphilitiques. Wood engraving from Aesculape. Published 6 June 1931. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. M0006193.