Little Bits of History

Love Bug

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 31, 2011

Treponema pallidum - the helix organism causing syphilis

January 31, 1747: The London Lock Hospital opens for business as the first venereal disease clinic, it was developed to treat syphilis. A charitable society was formed in July of the previous year and in November, they purchased a house at Grosvenor Place, near Hyde Park Corner in London. The founder, William Bromfield, was able to have the clinic opened the following year and within that first year, almost 300 people were treated. Unsuccessfully, because at the time, syphilis was incurable.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by Treponema pallidum, a spirochete bacterium.  It is called the “Great Imitator” because the symptoms are the same as in other diseases and it was often misdiagnosed. The only definitive diagnosis for syphilis is made via a blood test and the only true cure is an antibiotic. Penicillin, the first antibiotic, was discovered circa 1928 and didn’t come to market until the 1940s.

The simple fact that the disease could not be cured did not in any way diminish the treatment plans. There were herbal treatments that at least caused no harm. The most common treatment for the disease was to give the patient mercury, itself a toxic substance. Mercury was given by mouth, rubbed into the skin, or turned into a gas while the patient lay in an enclosed, hot box. It was found that high fevers made the symptoms disappear, so patients were intentionally given malaria, which after allowed to run its course for a time, was then treated with quinine.

Widespread outbreaks of the disease in Europe were first written about in 1495. Some claim that Columbus brought the disease back with him. Others claim that evidence exists that syphilis was always in Europe and that relaxed morality and greater mobility was the reason for the spread of the disease. Alfred Crosby postulates that syphilis is a form of Yaws disease, similar to tuberculosis. He claims that Yaws was transmitted to the New World at an earlier time and evolved there as syphilis and was then brought back by the men aboard Columbus’s trio of ships. Many famous and infamous people have been linked with the disease: popes, kings and queens, artists, authors, musicians, and philosophers as well as a chess master and a master criminal.

“Nature [is] that lovely lady to whom we owe polio, leprosy, smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, cancer.” – unknown

“It is unthinkable for a Frenchman to arrive at middle age without having syphilis and the Cross of the Legion of Honor.” – Andre Gide

“Even diseases have lost their prestige, there aren’t so many of them left. Think it over… no more syphilis, no more clap, no more typhoid… antibiotics have taken half the tragedy out of medicine.” – Louis Ferdinand Celine

“But when I go really far back in time, to the days when everyone was dying of cholera and syphilis and bubonic plague, I want nothing to do with those periods. I mean, nobody showered. That’s why perfume became such a popular item.” – Matt Dillon

Also on this day:
Sticking to Business – In 1930, 3M marketed Scotch tape.
Van Allen Belts – In 1958, Explorer I launched.

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