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America Sends Syphilis to Europe, 1493
Call it the “New World’s Revenge.” The first recorded instance of syphilis in Europe was made in 1494 when it ravaged the French troops that were besieging the city-state of Naples. It is theorized that the unfortunate French soldiers’ malady originated with their Spanish allies also taking part in the siege. It is further surmised that this chain of transmission began in Spain in 1493 with the return of members of Columbus’s first voyage to the Caribbean Islands. It is hypothesized that the returnees had been exposed to the disease through their intimate fraternization with the native population of the New World.

The only means of transmitting the disease from one person to another is through sexual intercourse. Once contracted, syphilis progresses through three stages of development that produce a horrendous experience for the inflicted. Without treatment, the ultimate outcome is death. Unfortunately for fifteenth-century Europe, once a person was contaminated by the disease, there was no known cure. Mankind would have to wait for more than four hundred years until the twentieth century when the discovery of penicillin revealed an antidote for the disease.

"This distemper…has made such havoc that it deserves to be mentioned as a fatal calamity."

A contemporary Italian Priest describes the malady that was brought to Italy by the invading French army:

"In giving the history of these times, I think it ought not to be forgot that amongst all other calamities which overwhelmed Italy by this invasion of the French, or were at least attributed to it, a new and unheard of distemper broke out, by them called the Neapolitan, but by the Italians the French disease, because it showed itself first among the French whilst they were at Naples, and on their return was spread all over Italy.

This distemper, either quite new or never known before in our hemisphere, unless in its remotest parts, has made for a number of years such havoc that it deserves to be mentioned as a fatal calamity. It first discovered itself either with ugly boils, which often became incurable wounds, or with acute pains in all joints and nerves throughout the body. The inexperienced physicians applied not only improper, but often contrary medicines, which irritated the distemper and deprived of life a multitude of both sexes and of all ages.

Many became deformed, useless and subject to perpetual pains, and the best part of those who seemed to be cured relapsed into the same misery. But as some years are now elapsed, either because the celestial influence which produced it in so virulent a manner is mitigated, or that by length of time proper remedies have been found out, it has lost very much of its malignity

However, the French ought in justice to be cleared from this ignominious imputation, for it afterwards plainly appeared that the distemper was brought to Naples from Spain: nor was it the product of that country: it was conveyed thither from those islands which, about this time, through the means of Christopher Columbus, a Genoese, began to be known in our hemisphere. But Nature has been indulgent to the inhabitants of those islands in providing an easy remedy, for by drinking the juice of a particular medicinal wood which grows among them, they are entirely cured."

   This eyewitness account appears in: "C.R.N. Roth (ed.) They Saw it Happen in Europe (1965); K. Holmes, K., Mardh, P., Sparling, P., et al (eds), Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 3rd Edition. (1999).

How To Cite This Article:
"America Sends Syphilis to Europe, 1493" EyeWitness to History, (2011).

Gérard de Lairesse was an influential Amsterdam artist and a friend of Rembrandt. Born with syphilis, his artistic carrier was ended when he was blinded by the disease in 1690.