Syphilis and Guaiacum

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


This sixteenth century engraving of a household scene in the Netherlands shows a patient sick in bed with syphilis as well as a man making the treatment. The man sitting on the floor is chopping up a piece of guaiacum wood, a very hard wood found in the West Indies which was considered to be an effective cure for syphilis in the 1520s, and retained some credibility as late as the nineteenth century. Not only was the density of this wood considered proof that it had mysterious attributes, but the very fact that it came from the New World gave it special legitimacy. A prevalent belief of the sixteenth century was that nature (or God) provided cures for geographically specific diseases in the region from which the disease originated. Thus guaiacum, a New World plant, was believed efficacious against syphilis, which was seen as a New World disease.

For the first time in the history of human kind, people of all races were brought into contact with each other, and the opportunities for sexual contact were many. Although many European explorers took (often temporary) American brides, rape was also an all-too-common phenomenon of the brutal early conquest period. The soldiers, sailors, and statesmen who had sex with infected American women often traveled far and lived licentiously, spreading the disease to Europe, Asia, and Africa with incredible speed. In fact, by the time of Columbus's death in 1506, syphilis had spread to every continent save Antarctica and Australia.

The syphilis epidemic is a stark reminder of just how mobile some Europeans had become by the dawn of the sixteenth century, and that real people living real--and often scandalous--lives were the agents through which much of the post-Columbian changes occurred. Then as much as now, one's personal decisions could have profound repercussions that, intended or not, could irreversibly change the world as well as the lives of individuals spread far throughout it.

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

CITATION: A man in bed suffering from syphilis, amidst a busy domestic scene. Line engraving by P. Galle after Jan Van der Straet. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. L0011152.