What is Guaiacum and how was it connected to Syphilis?

In a previous post, I discussed how syphilis got its name from a poem written in 1530. The shepherd Syphilis was struck down with the venereal disease for overturning the altars dedicated to Apollo. Syphilis was cured of the disease by ingesting the bark of the guaiacum tree.

The guaiacum tree is native to the Caribbean and was probably introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the first decades after Columbus’ first voyage. Guaiacum was the first American word to enter the English language. Guaiacum was also known as guaiac, Holy Wood, lignum sanctum, lignum vitae, and hyacum.

Guaiacum was conceptualized for medicinal use within the framework of natural philosophy.  Medicine in the early-modern era had more in common with medieval notions than with modern medicine.  Natural philosophers read the “book of nature,” and accepted occult or secret ways of knowing that now seem antithetical to modern scientific methods. Most medical thought of the era was based on the teachings of Galen (119-216 CE), the physician to the emperors Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180) and Commodus (r. 177-192). His teachings dominated medical thought in the medieval Latin, Greek, and Arab worlds.  While Galen did not fully develop the theories of medical practice during his era, western physicians inherited his writings in the middle ages, particularly The Art of Medicine.

Galen’s works were printed in Greek in 1525 sparking a reinvigoration of Galenic thought and study.  Galenism survived in academic medicine up to 1800 because no new discovery could undermine the entire system of thought.  Galenism was flexible because its adherents were able to incorporate contradictory ideas and discoveries into the existing intellectual framework.

Classical, medieval, and early-modern Galenic medicine taught that the body was comprised of four humours.  Each humour was comprised of the ancient elements of water, earth, fire, and air, and the amount of each element contributed to every humour possessing a quality.  Phlegm was cold and wet; black bile, cold and dry; blood, hot and wet; and choler (yellow bile), hot and dry.  Each humour contributed to a person’s temperament.  Yellow bile made individuals quarrelsome and black bile made people melancholic.  Every person’s temperament reflected the unique blend of humours within their body.  In addition to the four classical elements and the four humours, the body was made up of five other “naturals:” complexions or temperament reflecting the individual’s blend of hot, cold, wet, and dry; parts of the body including the three major organs of the liver, heart, and brain; an animating spiritus which is an pneuma produced by the heart; virtues; and the operations of individual organs.

Galen viewed the body as a mass of fluids made up of the four humours rather than distinct body parts and biological systems. The body would fall sick when there was an excess of one humour.  The physician’s role was to identify which humour was in excess and then to rebalance the levels of humours.  Medicines were considered hot, wet, cold, or dry, and their effect on the body depended on their classification.  Treatment of a sick patient was done through contraries, so, a cold medicine would cure a hot disease. However, diseases rarely affected just one humour.  William Clowes, in his 1588 translation of the Spanish physician John Almenar entitled A prooed pratise for all young chirurgians, remarked “for as corruption seldome happeneth in one onely humour (sayth Galen. 1. regim. acut.) euen so you shall seldome finde the signes foretelling one onely humour.”

The four humours

Guaiacum is one of the “four sudorific woods” which also include sassafras, china root, and sarsparilla. When ingested, sudorifics made patients sweat, which according to the notions of early-modern natural philosophy, helped rebalance humours and aided in curing disease. Guaiacum therefore cured syphilis by rebalancing a patient’s humours.

One of the first recipes calling for guaiacum to treat syphilis originated in 1516 from Seville from “a certain spice-dealer who had it [but] was unwilling to show it except to his intimate friends.” The surviving copy of the recipe was written down in 1519 by “Ippolito of Monterreale…in the house of Master Giovanni Lorenzo of Sassoferrato, a doctor of most excellent in every faculty.” The first published medical recipe using guaiacum was printed in 1518 in Augsburg entitled A recipe for using a wood for the French disease and other running open sores, translated from Spanish into German. The rest of Europe was introduced to guaiacum through Ulrich von Hutten’s 1519 book De Morbo Gallico in which he claimed the tree could “hele the frenche pockes cleane, pluckyng them vppe by the rootes, but specially whan a man ben diseased with them of alonge tyme.” Behind mercury, guaiacum was the second most widely drug used to treat syphilis.

Francisco Hernández, Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus, seu, plantarum, animalium, mineralium Mexicanorum historia (Rome, 1651)

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