Without tracing back to the time when a disease became known, it will be somewhat difficult to wrap one's head around the global sensitiveness to the disease. The modern syphilis we know so much about is not a 21st century disease; it has been noted in ancient books by notable philosophers.
Syphilis in the Ancient World
It is said that the god of the Aztec, Nanahuatzin, was suffering from syphilis. Revered poets and priests in medieval times suffered from this very contagious disease. Be that as it may, the form of syphilis which is terrorizing the world presently is a lighter version of the death sentence-type witnessed hundreds of years ago.
Even though efforts have been made to rope a particular geographical location on earth into the origin of syphilis, such tries are not paying off as there are no concrete pieces of evidence supporting the allusions. The name syphilis is Latin for ‘The French Disease.’
Syphilis is an ancient and modern sexually transmitted disease at the same time whose history still remains inconclusive for want of solid chronological records. In ancient times, however, syphilis was quite deadly and was connected to the death of a million afflicted people in Europe during the Renaissance. Persons infected with the disease were horribly covered with syphilitic sores from their heads to their knees, the flesh on their faces fell off and their deaths occurred within months of the affliction.
There are hypotheses that surround the history of syphilis, one linking Columbus's American voyage to the disease and the other indicting Europe.
The Columbian theory has it that syphilis was an American disease brought back to Europe by Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer and navigator, alongside his crewmen. However, history shows that syphilis had already broken out among the French troops besieging Naples in Italy in 1495, three whole years before Columbus' voyage.
The discovery of a nonsexual transmitted form of syphilis brought back to Europe by Columbus and his crew which evolved into subgroups of the disease that can be transmitted sexually exonerated American continents from being the originators of sexually transmitted syphilis. Yet, this evidence has been questioned by other scientific discoveries which made it clear that there was no syphilis in Europe prior to the time Columbus and his men traveled.
The pre-Columbian theory to the origin of syphilis indicted Europe as housing syphilis before Europeans came to occupy the American continents. From Hippocrates' classical Greece to Douglas W. Owsley's proposal that leprosy in Europe was a form of syphilis, scholars believed that syphilis originated from Europe. The shreds of evidence supporting this hypothesis are weak and cannot be taken as factual.
Treating Syphilis – the Old Way
For the treatment of syphilis in the medieval times, mercury was the most highly rated compound. It was applied directly on the skin of infected patients or was given through oral ingestion. Fumigation and the plaster application of mercury were other ways mercury was administered to patients.
The plant, Guaiacum was also used in the treatment of the infection even though it was less effective when compared to mercury. Other historical forms of treatment for syphilis included making infected people fall sick with malaria since it was believed that the high fever associated with malaria could cure syphilis; administration of other plants like wild pansy and Root of China (a species of sarsaparilla).
Syphilis and the harsh forms of treating it were capable of disfiguring its sufferers, altering their facial structures by collapsing their noses, etc. As time progressed with better discoveries made on the disease, better treatment options came into being. Antibiotics are still in use for treating syphilis especially given the fact that the modern presentation of the disease is milder than the hostile nature it assumed centuries ago.
With all said, syphilis has no tangible history. In 2003, Alfred W. Crosby, an American historian hinted that both the Columbian and the pre-Columbian theories are partly true, in a theory known as combination theory. This theory points fingers at America and early human ancestors.
Treponema pallidum, the causative agent for syphilis was not discovered until 1905 by Schaudinn and Hoffman in the tissue of syphilis patients. In 1906, a year after the discovery of the bacterium, the Wassermann test for syphilis was developed. The Hinton test came to be in the 1930s based on the science behind flocculation. It was found to have fewer false positive results than the Wassermann test.
The burden of syphilis, its pathogenesis, and pathophysiology became relieved from humanity when in 1913, a Japanese scientist in the then Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, Hideyo Noguchi, showed that Treponema was a spirochete bacterium. Afterward, Felix Milgrom developed a test for syphilis which is still relevant till date.