Syphilis: The Oldest STI to Infect Humans?

There is a lot of debate around Syphilis, where did it come from, was Blackbeard actually infected, and is syphilis really the oldest STI? One thing is clear we are incredibly lucky not to have caught this bacterium in the 16th century. We’re going to look at what researchers have unearthed and explore the history around one of the oldest STIs.

What Is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a common sexually transmitted infection caused by the Treponema pallidum bacterium (Wilson, & Wilson, 2019). This bacterium is spread though vaginal, anal and oral sex (Wilson, & Wilson, 2019). But also from mother to baby, usually before birth, and rarely via infected blood products (Wilson, & Wilson, 2019).

This STI can be cured with antibiotics. But the “macrolide-resistant strains” of syphilis are now common in several developed countries (Wilson, & Wilson, 2019). So It’s important to get diagnosed

There’s a lot more to say on this infection in the modern world, so if you want to learn more, click the button below.

Where Did Syphilis Come From?

The exact start of syphilis is unknown and very controversial for a long time, but there are three main hypotheses or ideas on where the infection came from.

1. The Columbian Hypothesis: Syphilis was shipped from the Americas to Europe by the crew of Christopher Columbus (Tampa et al., 2014).

But the possibility that the sailors were already infected before they went to the Americas cannot be ruled out (Mercuri et al., 2022).

2. Syphilis was originated in Africa and through slavery was brought to Spain and Portugal (Mercuri et al., 2022).

3. Syphilis existed in Europe and the Americas for a long time. But it existed in 4 stains and was very rare or misdiagnosed as other illnesses.

According to Tampa et al., (2014), researchers who did a studied all the available genetic and historical evidence on the origin of syphilis, the most likely answer is that syphilis was an endemic disease (an infection that regularly happens in a area or community) in the Americas that evolved from a non-venereal ancestor, and was introduced to Europe by Columbus and his men in 1493 when they visited the new world.

Despite this their evidence also suggests that syphilis may have existed in other parts of the world before Columbus, but was either rare or misdiagnosed as other diseases.

So basically a combination of all three hypothesis is probably closer to the truth.

Did Blackbeard Have Syphilis?

Blackbeard, is one of the most famous pirates. Known for the fear he invoked as a flamboyant pirate who went into battle with lit matches flaming in his hair and whiskers (Beckman, 2014). Legend says that a lot of his craziness was not only for show but also due to the effects of syphilis.

A prime example of this nuttiness was recounted by, Defoe, in his History, apparently Blackbeard prepared his crew for Hell by locking them up in their ship’s airless hole with smoking pots of charcoal and brimstone (Beckman, 2014). This does not seem like the kind of craziness one only puts on to scare your victims into surrendering.

Furthermore, Blackbeard and his crew held the town of Charleston for a chest of medicine as ransom, supposedly for Blackbeard’s syphilis (Beckman, 2014). But what does the hard archaeological evidence say? This brings us to the historical treatment for syphilis.

How Syphilis Was Treated In The Past

In 1718, Blackbeard’s pirate ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge was making a hasty getaway. The crew had just collected a large ransom for lifting his blockade on the port in Charles Town, South Carolina (Drye, 2011).

When disaster struck, after years as Blackbeard’s fearsome vessel, it had hit a sandbar and had to abandoned; eventually it sank beneath the waves (Drye, 2011).

It was this wreckage that held some important evidence to the truth of Blackbeard’s infection. 300 years later, the ship was rediscovered and researchers then began exploring the wreck (Sands et al., 2020).

In 2015, amongst the murky debris they found a urethral syringe which was used to inject mercury. By the 17th century, mercury injections into the urethral tract were the standard European therapeutic for the ‘new plague’ (Sands et al., 2020). A prime example of why I am so incredibly grateful I do not have syphilis in the 17th century.

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