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Syphilis & Pineapples

In response to:

Caliban's Gift from the November 25, 1976 issue

To the Editors:

Christopher Hill (NYR, November 25), reviewing two books on Columbus, offers the casual aside in parentheses: “(the ravages of syphilis were the New World’s revenge on the Old for the rapes and seductions of Columbus’s sailors and the conquistadores).” His notion is supported only by hearsay and some ambiguous lesions in pre-Columbian bones. Much scholarly research suggests that it is false. The truth may never be known; even a paleoimmunological test, if we had one—which might approach the court of last resort—would probably not distinguish between syphilis, bejel, yaws, and pinta, of which only the first is venereal, and which, had they been transmitted by American aborigines to Columbus’s sailors (which itself is not known to have happened) would not have reappeared as syphilis. Neither medical nor historical scholarship has bothered much with this subject for ten years or more; but the idea is still occasionally repeated by nonspecialists in both fields. Evidence that syphilis was probably known to the Chinese in the second millenium BC or earlier and in the Old World continuously since Biblical times (often masquerading under other names, especially leprosy), has been diligently reviewed by K. Sudhoff, R.C. Holcomb, E.H. Hudson, C.J. Hackett, and many others. It is reviewed in my book. Microbes and Morals (see especially the revised edition published in London by Paladin in 1975; and my paper in Monthly Review 25:13, 1974). Although proponents of the idea have tried to trace it back to doctors who treated returning members of Columbus’s crews, it appears that it didn’t take hold until John Astruc, physician to King Louis XV of France, presented it in the guise of received dogma in his treatise on venereal disease in 1754. Voltaire probably got it from him and used it with comic effect in Candide. Mean-while Fracastor wrote an avowedly fanciful poem from which the name “syphilis” is derived, which starts the disease in Haiti but says nothing about sex (1530); in his later great clinical treatise, Contagion (1546) Fracastor cannot decide that the disease is transmitted sexually. But his poem was entitled Syphilis sive Morbus Gallicus, and a few decades later Shakespeare, who speaks of it repeatedly and knew all about its sexual character, also liked to play with the “French disease” as comic relief during the Anglo-French wars. In 1774 the great American doctor Benjamin Rush said, “The SMALL POX and the VENERAL DISEASE were communicated to the Indians in North America by the Europeans” (Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush, Philosophical Library, New York, 1947, p. 262). Now especially that the native Americans, as they prefer to call themselves, are asserting their rights more and more openly, it might be a good idea to stop repeating a canard that has distinctly racist overtones.

Theodor Rosebury

Conway, Massachusetts

Christopher Hill replies:

Expert opinion is divided on the question raised by Theodor Rosebury, whether syphilis originated in the New or the Old World. The division is represented in First Images of America, one of the two books I was reviewing. Since I am no expert on the subject I refer him and your readers to this book for the arguments on both sides.

What I think is not open to question is that there was, or was generally believed to be, far more syphilis in Europe after the discovery of America than before, and that contemporaries connected the two. They may have been wrong just as botanists may be wrong in suggesting that the pineapple came to Europe from the New World. But I cannot see that either hypothesis “has distinctly racist overtones” or that it suggests any lack of sympathy for native Americans asserting their rights.

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