How Syphilis got its Name

Compared to today, syphilis was a different disease in early-modern Europe. It was more ferocious, fast acting, and destructive.  Symptoms included painful and often deadly rashes and ulcers on the groin, limbs, mouth, throat, and eyes. The Italian physician and poet Girolamao Fracastoro (1478-1553) recounted these symptoms:

“The foul Infection o'er his Body spread
Prophanes his Bosome, and deforms his Head;
His wretched Limbs with filth and stench o'er flow,
While Flesh divides, and shews the Bones below.
Dire Ulcers (can the Gods permit them) prey
On his fair Eye-balls, and devour their Day.

Where does syphilis come from?

Syphilis emerged in the Americas through the long and complicated history of human migration. The treponematosis bacteria originated in Africa in the form of yaws.  The disease mutated into the disease known as bejel and entered Asia and then later North America when humans crossed from Asia to the Americas either via the Bering Land Bridge or water routes. Once in North America, bejel mutated into syphilis. The North American mutation was introduced to Europe most likely by the returning participants of Columbus’ first voyage in 1493. Some of Columbus’ crew then found themselves tied up in the Siege of Naples the following year where the first recorded syphilis outbreak occurred.

The link between Columbus and syphilis was not made until 1526. Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes made the connection in his Natural History of the Indies.  In addressing the King of Spain Oviedo remarked, “Your majesty may take it as certain that this malady (the bubas) comes from the Indies, where it is very common knowledge amongst the Indians, but not so dangerous in those lands as it were our own…The first time this sickness was seen in Spain was after Admiral Don Christopher Columbus had discovered the Indies and returned from those lands.”

Another possibility for the introduction of syphilis to Europe was through Caribbean Indians taken as slaves and forced into prostitution in Naples. Columbus encouraged the enslaving of Indian women for sexual purposes, and various authors in Italy remarked on the presence of Indian sex slaves.  According to Claude Quétel, this theory rests on the unprovable assumption that Indian slaves had syphilis and brought the disease with them from America to Italy.

Syphilis quickly spread throughout Europe and Asia after its arrival in Naples in 1594. Syphilis spread rapidly from Naples to France, Germany, and Switzerland within one year.  It appeared in Holland, England and Greece in 1496; the Middle East and India in 1498; Hungary and Russia in 1499; China in 1505; and Japan by 1512.

How syphilis got its name?

The use of the word “syphilis” to describe the disease was not generally used until the end of the nineteenth century; instead, the word “pox” was preferred, and the term “great pox” was used to differentiate it from smallpox. Other names were applied and they varied depending on the national origin of the speaker. The English and Italians called it the French Disease or the French Pox (morbus gallicus); the French; called it the Neapolitan sickness; Russians referred to it as the Polish sickness; Poles called it the German sickness; Flemings, Dutch, Portuguese and North Africans called it the Spanish or Castilian sickness; and the Japanese called it the Canton Rash or the Chinese Ulcer.

The term “syphilis” was coined in 1530 by Girolamo Fracastoro in his 1530 poem Syphilis sive morbus gallicus.  Fracastoro used the poem for didactic purposes, to tell the audience how the disease was transmitted and cured. The poem was widely read, going through 100 editions in the first 70 years after its initial publication.  Critics compared the poem to Virgil’s Georgics, and its beauty and success likely contributed to Fracastoro being hailed as the greatest Latin poet of the age and helped secure his position as the physician to the Council of Trent.

The poem recounted the mythical origin of syphilis.  A shepherd named Syphilus tended the sheep of Alcithoüs, the king of Atlantis.  In an act of devotion to his master, Syphilus overturned the altars dedicated to Apollo and rededicated them to King Alcithoüs. Apollo gave Syphilus the venereal disease as punishment for his transgressions. The Atlantians named the disease after their cursed shepherd.  The shepherd was cured by ingesting the bark of the guaiacum tree.  A Syrian hunter named Ilceus also appeared in the poem and was stricken by syphilis but found his cure via mercury treatments.

Sadeler Girolamo Fracastoro Syphils
Hieronymus Fracastorius (Girolamo Fracastoro) shows the shepherd Syphilus and the hunter Ilceus being warned against yielding to temptation and syphilis. Engraving by Jan Sadeler I after Christoph Schwartz, Munich, 1588/1595, Engraving. Wellcome Library, ICV no. 51428

Fracastoro’s syphilis story was engraved and printed in the sixteenth century by Johannes Sadeler. On the left stands a statue of Venus.  Water flows from Venus’ breast into a cistern, and from the cistern, the water flows into a stream.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASitting on the banks of the stream is a lute-playing woman wearing an extravagant dress and a string of pearls around her neck.  Her hair is done up to give the appearance of two horns growing from her head.  Underneath her is a Latin distich that is a paraphrase of Proverbs 7:19 reading “Come here and join your limbs with me in a desirable embrace while my husband is absent, while there is no fear.”

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To the right of the seated woman is a dog urinating into the stream.  Downstream and to the right of the dog is the shepherd Syphilis, drinking the water contaminated by both the dog and Venus’ breasts.

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Behind Syphilis is the Syrian hunter Ilceus who stands above a Latin distich reading “He who burns for Venus does the same as does he whom thirst compels to wet his mouth with whatever he finds first,” a paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 42:11.  In the center of the engraving stands the poet Fracastoro holding a copy of his poem.  Beneath him is a Latin distich paraphrasing Proverbs 5:15-21 that reads “Let not the ways of the whore seduce you, but drink, alone, the pure liquid from the proper source.”  Fracastoro is warning both Syphilis and Ilceus of the dangers of venereal disease that comes from the contaminated wetness.

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