If diarrhea is Montezuma’s revenge…

…then whose revenge is the clap?

The first recorded epidemic of syphilis happened during the Renaissance in 1495. Initially the plague broke out among the army of Charles the VIII after the French king invaded Naples. It then proceeded to devastate the continent.

“Syphilis was a major killer in Europe during the Renaissance,” said researcher George Armelagos, a skeletal biologist at Emory University in Atlanta.

In the centuries since then, controversy has raged over whether Columbus and his men introduced not only the New World to Europe, but a new sexually transmitted disease as well. In the 20th century, critics of the “Columbian theory” proposed that syphilis had always bedeviled the Old World but simply had not been set apart from other rotting diseases such as leprosy until 1500 or so.


Caused by Treponema pallidum bacteria, syphilis is usually curable nowadays with antibiotics. Untreated, it can damage the heart, brain, eyes and bones and be fatal.

To see if Columbus and his men introduced syphilis to Europe after catching it in the Americas, scientists investigated the bacteria that cause syphilis and related ailments such as bejel and yaws, germs together known as treponemes. The research strategy focused on genetically comparing treponemes from across the globe to determine a family tree — which microbes gave rise to which — and perhaps thus see where syphilis came from.

After comparing 26 strains of treponemes from Africa, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, the Americas and the Pacific Islands, the researchers found the strains that caused the sexually transmitted disease originated recently, with their closest relatives being germs collected in South America. In other words, it seems to have come from the New World.

“The movement of diseases between Europeans and Native Americans is often seen as a one-way street, with Europeans bringing germs such as smallpox and measles,” Harper said. “But syphilis seems to be an example of a disease that went the other way.”

Syphilis seems to dog warmongers and imperialists wherever they go. It was a major scourge among ex-soldiers after World War I; many died of it in insane asylums. (Interestingly, it became a major killer of black Americans after the Great War, too.) And some claim Hitler caught it from a Jewish prostitute, and went antisemitically mad as a result. (He called it “the Jewish disease”, thus following a lengthy tradition of blaming the disease on persons of another ethnicity.)

It would certainly be good for a laugh if the New World got back at the Old by way of the clap, but in the end, the point is not where it came from but where it’s going. The fact that it’s not history yet, like smallpox, is probably going to keep epidemiologists awake for many more nights than its probable country of origin.

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