The Great Pox

The sexually transmitted disease syphilis is generally thought to have been imported into Europe from the Americas in the late fifteenth century as part of the ‘Columban exchange’, in which other diseases, notably smallpox, travelled in the other direction, with terrible consequences for Native American society.

It spread rapidly through Europe, spread above all by armies moving across the continent in the many wars of the time. Painters from Dürer to Rembrandt represented the ravage it wrought, while the threat it posed gave rise to numerous treatments in literature and drama (notably Ibsen’ Ghosts) and strongly affected attitudes to sexuality and prostitution, both explored in this lecture. It remained common well into the twentieth century and still kills millions worldwide every year; reasonably effective treatment only became possible just before the First World War, and the search for a complete cure led to dangerous medical experiments on involuntary human subjects later in the twentieth century, raising major issues of medical ethics.

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