The Origin of Syphilis

Post by Caitlin Jukes, a current University of Glasgow PhD student researching in Microbiology. She has recently completed a three month BBSRC-funded placement in Special Collections working with the Glasgow Syphilis Collection. The Glasgow Syphilis Collection comprises circa 250 early printed works on the disease, recently described in a Wellcome-funded project. You may also like to read Caitlin’s first blogpost on syphilis: Pox, pustules and pestilence – A history of syphilis treatment

Since the first recorded outbreak in 1495 arguments have raged over the origin of syphilis. Did Columbus return from the New World carrying a new disease? Or was it always present in Europe but never previously identified? In the 1700’s Jean Astruc painstakingly examined historical accounts in order to determine the disease’s origins. He concluded that the 1495 outbreak was indeed caused by a new disease transmitted to Europe by Columbus and his returning crew. He could find no convincing accounts of syphilis before this time,

“Now what just excuse can be brought for the ancient Historians, who have not given us one single Instance of this kind in two thousand years? Can we imagine, that they could not find one of the Graecian Commanders to tell of, not one of the Roman Emperors, who indulg’d themselves in all manners of Uncleanness, that ever had venereal distemper?” (1)

An extract from Jean Astruc’s 'A treatise on the venereal disease'. (London: (1770)) Sp Coll Hunterian Ab.6.21

An extract from Jean Astruc’s ‘A treatise on the venereal disease’. London (1770) Sp Coll Hunterian Ab.6.21

Celebrated Georgian physician, and University of Glasgow benefactor William Hunter also believed that syphilis was a new malady. However, he did not agree that it came from Columbus and his crew. He believed that Astruc’s theory was flawed and based on insufficient evidence,

“Dr Astruc, tho he has taken a great deal of pains upon this subject, appears to have made up his mind upon the question before he had collected or sufficiently weighed the very evidence which he has produced” (2)

Hunter argues that it is unlikely that the disease could have been present before the first outbreak as it would have spread quickly throughout Europe. Instead, he thought it a completely new malady,

“[Syphilis is a] new poison of a contagious nature, generated, or first produced in the 15th century, and … not brought from America” (3 – see note added 16/10/15)

Taken from 'An Essay on the origin of Lues Venera' by William Hunter. London (1775) Ms Hunter M121

Taken from ‘An Essay on the origin of Lues Venera’ by William Hunter. London (1775) Ms Hunter H121

Current research can help to resolve the matter. Firstly we can look for human remains demonstrating signs of syphilis in Europe which pre-date Columbus’s voyage; and secondly we can examine the evolution of the syphilis pathogen itself. Syphilis attacks human bone, leaving tell-tale patterns of damage. The search for European Pre-Columbian skeletons showing signs of syphilitic damage has been extensive and many academic papers have been written claiming to identify such remains. However all have been found to date from much later than originally thought, initial dating having been confounded by a quirk of carbon dating in which the bones of people with a diet high in seafood seem older than they actually are due to large quantities of ‘old’ carbon. As of yet there are no convincing human remains suggesting syphilis was present in Europe before the return of Columbus.(4)

Some sequenced DNA visualised using CLC Genomics Workbench (courtesy of Caitlin Jukes)

Some sequenced DNA visualised using CLC Genomics Workbench (courtesy of Caitlin Jukes)

Another way to investigate the origin of the disease involves DNA sequencing. The naturally occurring mutations to bacterial DNA which take place over a long period of time can be compared to determine the evolutionary relationship of bacterial species. By investigating these mutations it is possible to determine how related two species are. By studying multiple examples of different Treponema bacteria – the genus of which syphilis is part – from distinct geographical locations, it was found that Treponema pallidum, the species which causes venereal syphilis, evolved most recently. The analysis also showed that it is most closely related to the bacteria which causes Yaws (a non-venereal skin condition) recovered from South America, suggesting an American ancestor for venereal syphilis. This supports a New World origin for modern syphilis.(5)(6 – see note added 27/11/15)

Other evidence supporting the new arrival of the disease to Europe can be found in the devastating effect it had on sufferers during the first few years of the outbreak. The symptoms were dire, including horrible pustules and searing joint pain. However this changed rapidly and after about 10 years the symptoms became much less severe. The pustules and disgusting smell described at the beginning of the outbreak became incredibly rare. There are good biological reasons for this. When a disease is present within a population it evolves to suit that population. Its virulence and transmission are carefully balanced to ensure it is passed on to more hosts. Too virulent and it kills the host before the disease has been passed on, so damaging its ability to spread. If a pathogen is introduced into a new population which it has not evolved alongside the effects can be devastating.(7) Think, for example, of the decimation of previously uncontacted Amazonian tribes on being contacted by outsiders; huge numbers of indigenous people have been killed by diseases like chicken pox and flu due to a lack of immunity. In the case of syphilis the rapid change in virulence is mostly likely due to the pathogen evolving, selecting for less virulent strains which help to maximise spread through the population. For a sexually transmitted disease the limitations of making people break out in unsightly and stinking pustules is clear: that person is much less likely to pass it on since no one will go near them! In recent years some cases of syphilis have resulted in such mild symptoms that people do not get tested until much later in the infection, massively increasing the time during which the disease can be transmitted.


  1. Jean Astruc’s ‘A treatise on the venereal disease’. London (1770) Sp Coll Hunterian Ab.6.21
  2. ‘An Essay on the origin of Lues Venera’ by William Hunter. London (1775) Ms Hunter H121
  3. In reaching his conclusions on the origin of the disease Hunter based much of his evidence on the letters of Peter Martyr Anghiera which stated that Lusitanus, professor of Greek at the University of Salamanca, had taken ill with syphilis prior to Columbus’s return from the Americas. Convinced of his case he presented a paper asserting the pre-Columbian origins of the disease to the Royal Society on 14 December 1775. However, subsequently Dr Samuel Musgrave told Hunter that the letters of Peter Martyr on which Hunter had based his findings were penned later than the date written on them. On hearing this Hunter withdrew his paper from publication in the Philosophical Transactions. — thanks to Sonny Maley, Wellcome Project Officer responsible for the Glasgow Syphilis Collection cataloguing, for this information (cf. C. Helen Brock ‘Calendar of the correspondence of Dr William Hunter 1740-1783’ (Cambridge: Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, 1996), pp. 70-71. Sp Coll Reference
  4. Kristin N. Harper, Molly K. Zuckerman, Megan L. Harper, John D. Kingston, and George J. Armelagos (2008) ‘The Origin and Antiquity of Syphilis Revisited: An Appraisal of Old World Pre-Columbian Evidence for Treponemal Infection’. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology. 54:99–133 (2011)
  5. Kristin N. Harper, Paolo S. Ocampo, Bret M. Steiner, Robert W. George, Michael S. Silverman, Shelly Bolotin, Allan Pillay, Nigel J. Saunders, George J. Armelagos (2008) ‘On the Origin of the Treponematoses: A Phylogenetic Approach’. PLOS neglected tropical disease.
  6. Some new research published in November 2015 casts doubt on the New World origin theory. Researchers from the Department of Forensic Medicine and the Center for Anatomy and Cell Biology (bone laboratory) at MedUni Vienna, Austria, have identified what they believe are several cases of congenital syphilis dating back to as early as 1320 in skeletons from excavations at the cathedral square of St. Pölten, Austria. This remarkable discovery of the earliest evidence of syphilis between 1320 and 1390 now awaits confirmation by molecular biological tests and proteomics (examination of the proteome using biochemical methods). See ‘Syphilis widespread in Central Europe even before Columbus’ voyage to America‘, Science News, Science Daily, November 19, 2015
  7. Robert J. Knell ‘Syphilis in Renaissance Europe: rapid evolution of an introduced sexually transmitted disease?’ The Royal Society Biology Letters (2003)

Categories: Special Collections

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2 replies

  1. Reblogged this on cautivadulce and commented:


  1. Micrographia under the microscope | University of Glasgow Library

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