Maybe Columbus Wasn’t “The Father of Syphilis” After All

19 Jan




It has long been believed that the sailors who crewed Christopher Columbus’s ships in his famous 1492 voyage contracted syphilis from the natives and transported the deadly disease back to Europe. But was this disease already in Europe long before Columbus was even born? According to a recent article in the Journal of Biological and Clinical Anthropology that just might be the case.

Of course, now most cases of syphilis are treatable and curable with antibiotics, but in 1492 things were a bit different They didn’t know what caused it and indeed that bacteria even existed. Antibiotics? Still centuries away. So syphilis was often deadly, and, if not, it was very disfiguring and incapacitating.

The real culprit is a spirochete called Treponema palladium. And it might have been in Europe as early as 1320.




Posted by on January 19, 2016 in Medical History


7 responses to “Maybe Columbus Wasn’t “The Father of Syphilis” After All

  1. Laura Mitchell

    January 19, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    I remember reading a few years ago (when I was an on-again/off-again member of the Palepathology Association) that during construction in Hull, UK they’d excavated a 14th century cemetery and that many of the remains had signs of late stage syphilis. The thinking was that syphilis was endemic in the New World and constituted a mild illness with rapid recovery and no sequelae. Columbus’s sailors brought it back to Europe where it morphed (possibly by combining with an organism already there) into the syphilis we know today.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      January 20, 2016 at 9:12 am

      Yes that was always the belief–that it was endemic in the New World and became a real disease in the Old World. History is filled with such happenings. The questions is whether this new evidence shows true syphilis was there all along and pre-dated Columbus. More research might answer the question. Thanks for your comment.


  2. Cheryl B. Dale

    January 20, 2016 at 9:50 am

    Interesting. I’ll be looking for more research!


    • Laura Mitchell

      January 20, 2016 at 10:43 am

      Check out the Paleopathology Association. I wonder if what they called “syphilis” in the new world wasn’t really syphilis at all?


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        January 20, 2016 at 10:51 am

        It went by many names and other diseases were often confused with it. Even Leprosy.


      • Laura Mitchell

        January 20, 2016 at 10:54 am

        I seem to remember reading that the people of the Caribbean would get a mild rash (similar to measles?) that would go away, but maybe I’m mixing it up with another illness.


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        January 20, 2016 at 11:10 am

        True. A rash is one of the early signs of syphilis and in cases where there is at least partial immunity–as is seen in endemic infections–this might be as far as it progresses.



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