It has been recorded that there was an epidemic of a strange new disease in Europe towards the close of the 15th century. Its early manifestation included soreness in the reproductive organs. It often affected people who had traveled much. So it came to be named in terms of a foreign country: Polish sickness in Russia, German ailment in Poland, Neopolitan disease in France, French affliction in Italy, etc. Apparently, French soldiers returning from an Italian campaign in Naples were afflicted by it. It was also believed to have been communicated by prostitutes. A Latin poem by Girolamo Fracastero, published in 1521, was entitled Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus (Syphilis, or the French disease), which would be a very politically incorrect term in our own times. Many have argued that, like potato and maize, the disease was imported into Europe from the New World via sailors who had engaged in physical intimacies with the women of the land. Fracastero named the disease after the mythic Syphilus of antiquity who is said to have worshiped his king rather than any God he could not see. This angered Apollo who, thereupon, filled the air with toxic fumes which caused blisters all over the poor shepherd’s body.
Be that as it may, there was little doubt that syphilis was a venereal disease, even though it also afflicted some cardinals in Rome. Aside from strict segregation and even exile beyond city walls, the victims suffered from pain, and were affected in other terrible ways too before they died. Priests preached abstinence and self-discipline as prevention, while physicians tried liberal use of mercury which played an important medicinal role in those days. Though effective to a degree, this treatment also had some terrible side effects like vomiting and blisters on the tongue.
It was only in the 20th century that the real culprit for the disease was discovered. This was done by Fritz Schaudinn (born: 19 September 1871) who had early interests in philology and physics, received a degree in philosophy, and then went on to explore zoology. He got a doctoral degree in science and went on expeditions to study life forms in the Arctic regions, before joining the Zoological Institute of the University of Berlin. He was particularly interested in protozoa: the unicellular organisms that can be pretty nasty to human beings. He studied malaria and other diseases, and established that tropical dysentery was caused by an amoeba. When he became director of the newly established Institute for Protozoology in Berlin, his attention turned to the cause of hookworm disease.
In 1905, while examining all kinds of microorganisms, Schaudinn spotted a minute spiral-shaped rod, pale in appearance, in material from a syphilitic papule. His claim that this Spirochaeta pallida was ultimately responsible for syphilis was not received very warmly by his peers at the Berlin Medical Society. But news of his finding reached scientists in other countries where his experiments were repeated. Sure enough, the presence of Spirochaeta pallida was found over and over again in all lesions associated with syphilis. Schaudinn attained international scientific fame, and was invited to work in various laboratories. Sadly, he died at the young age of 37.
From Schaudinn’s discovery came the famous (August Paul von) Wassermann test for the disease, and finally a cure for it. First the drug Salvarsan, was developed by Paul Ehrlich and Sahachiro Hata. It was also known as a magic bullet. It alleviated centuries of untold suffering and deaths. Like leprosy and AIDS, syphilis had wreaked horrors on countless human beings during many centuries. Only meticulous probing through the microscope could zero in on the cause and provide remedies.
October 29, 2013