The rise and fall of western syphilisation – An Irishman’s Diary about a once-dreaded disease

 Scanning electron micrograph of the anaerobic spirochaete bacteria Treponema pallidum, the causative agent of syphilis  in humans

Scanning electron micrograph of the anaerobic spirochaete bacteria Treponema pallidum, the causative agent of syphilis in humans

 

In one of James Joyce’s more scurrilous puns, from Ulysses, his protagonist known only as “the citizen” expresses contempt for any talk of the civilised English.  

Based loosely (and libellously, had he not been safely dead when the book came out) on GAA founder Michael Cusack, the character is a fire-breathing nationalist who sees no good in the “Sassenach” invaders.

So when Leopold Bloom tries to put in a word for their “civilisation”, the term is spat back, with revised spelling. “Their syphilisation, you mean, says the citizen.”

Italians, Germans, Poles, and English all called it ‘the French disease’. The French called it ‘the Neapolitan disease’

But as narrow-minded as Joyce may have made him, the character was only following a long-established European tradition here. Because for the previous 411 years, since syphilis had been first diagnosed this side of the Atlantic – in Barcelona in 1493 – it had been general practice for countries on the Continent to blame the disease on neighbours with lower morals.  

The historian Norman Davies sums the habit up as follows: “For many years [syphilis] had no official name. Italians, Germans, Poles, and English all called it ‘the French disease’. The French called it ‘the Neapolitan disease’. The Neapolitans called it ‘the Spanish disease’. The Portuguese called it ‘the Castilian disease’ and the Turks ‘the Christian disease’. The Spanish doctor who was one of the first to treat it, Dr Ruy Diaz de Isla, called it ‘the Serpent of Hispaniola’.”

Less helpfully, his poem recommends mercury as a treatment, advice that would poison many patients in the centuries that the world waited for somebody to discover penicillin

As for what became the official name, that was from a person, rather than a country.  

The original Syphilus was a fictional shepherd who acquires the painful condition in a 1530 epic by the Italian poet and physician Girolamo Fracastaro.  

Fracastaro blames the Greek god Apollo, which may have been the fairest attribution. Less helpfully, his poem recommends mercury as a treatment, advice that would poison many patients in the centuries that the world waited for somebody to discover penicillin.

Although the disease may have been in Europe before then, unnoticed, the more mainstream belief is that it came back from the New World with Christopher Columbus and successive explorers, along with such more welcome imports as maize and the potato.  

That would explain the timing of the Barcelona case.  

And indeed, the aforementioned Dr Diaz de Isla claimed his patients had included the master of one of Columbus’s ships. In any case, the microbe responsible for syphilis assumed much more virulent form in late-15th-century Europe: exploiting, as Davies delicately puts it, “the scabrous fissures that were common in the unwashed crotches of the day”.

And if only because they were among the pioneers of mass tourism, armies acted as prime carriers. Thus the French blamed syphilis on Naples because that’s where their soldiers caught it during a 1494 invasion. Of later defeats in Italy, Voltaire declared drily: “France did not lose all she had won. She kept the pox.” But in keeping it, her mercenary soldiers also shared it widely, in the many countries to which they returned.  

It became so common so quickly during the 16th century as to have profound effects on European behaviour.  

According to Davies, these included a new sexual puritanism, the replacement of public kissing by handshakes, and [via the hair-loss it caused] “the growing fashion for wigs.”

Yet the disease raged well into the 20th century. And acknowledged or otherwise, it had a ruinous effect on bohemian life before and during Joyce’s time, afflicting the painters Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec and the writers Baudelaire and Maupassant, among many others.  

He may have had a point in implying a link between Ireland’s syphilis rates and the high numbers of British troops stationed in pre-Independence Ireland

But Joyce too has come in for posthumous diagnosis. Most recently, a 2014 history of Ulysses argued that some of the symptoms of his health problems, as well as their treatment, were consistent with the disease.

As for the citizen, he may have had a point in implying a link between Ireland’s syphilis rates and the high numbers of British troops stationed in pre-Independence Ireland. This coincided with some of the most populous red light districts in Europe, after all.

So where his colourful summary left off in 1904, the Sinn Féin “Public Health Circular No. 1” continued 14 years later. Issued jointly by Doctors Kathleen Lynn and Richard Hayes, it called on the British military to blood-test for syphilis all troops returning to Ireland from the war.  

The document represents 1918 in John Bowman’s recent anthology of the century after Easter Week, Ireland - The Autobiography. And as he writes, it was a non-starter as public-health policy. But that wasn’t necessarily the point.  

Bowman adds: “As an expression of nationalist attitudes to Great War soldiers and the ostensible sexual purity of Ireland, it was eloquent propaganda.”