The Indian Illness Impact on the European

Throughout the grammar school years, students are taught how the American Indians succumbed to European diseases due to lack of immunity and medical care. It is rarely studied how the diseases of the Americas affected the Old World when the European visitors returned to their homeland with their unknown biological cargo in tow. Perhaps if one realizes the name of one of the most common illnesses, it could be realized that a social stigma probably has prevented this fact from becoming widely known to grade school students. The disease is syphillis… and after its evolution, it decided to manifest itself in private areas and private ways. The sexual nature and connotations it implies provide an interesting bacdground to the study of its spread.

Three theories of the origins of syphillis exist. There is the Columbian theory, which states that it was brought back from the New World by the explorers and their men; the antithesis theory, that claims it existed in the Old World before the 1492 voyages; and the Unitarian theory that the veneral form of the disease is a symptom of a entire strain of related diseases. Alfred W. Crosby, Jr. Offers evidence to support the Columbian theory.

One of the key pieces of evidence that is offered by Crosby is the lack of the terminology or even mention of such an affliction in the Old World prior to 1492. Beyond the lack of written evidence, he cites the lack of physical evidence. There have been no anthropological remains from before 1500 that suggest death by syphillis. A third key point is that when it did become evident in the Old World, it acted as a "new disease," spreading rampantly through its new-found cache of victims who lacked immunity before achieving a plateau of across-the-board resistance.

The symptoms were reported to be bone inflammation, genital pustules, and warts. By 1526 the disease’s course was including hair loss, tooth loss, and swelling in the groin. The plateau began around 1540, when these symptoms diminished and the deadliness declined. Some theorists explain the reduction of fatality as the result of improved hygiene or perhaps a mutation of the disease’s organism. What IS known is that for some reason the veneral type of syphillis adapted itself to whatever the conditions mentioned above may have been, and it went further into the tissues of its host and travelled through sexual transmission.

When man realized the transmission method, the social stigma increased. It was no longer a pox, or an unfortunate happenstance to its victims. Shame was not attached to the disease at first, but gradually prostitutes were condemned, public baths were shunned, friendships were affected. One is reminded of the stigmas attached to the the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

So syphillis enjoyed its fifteen minutes. It became a mentioned subject in literary works. Physicians, pharmacists, and placebo peddlers made their wealth attempting or claiming to treat and cure the disease.

Treatments were sometimes worse than the illness, especially mercury treatments. The ointment used on the sores caused by syphillis and the pill form that was swallowed in desperation often killed the patient in the process. When guaiacum was found as a treatment in the New World, its effect of having the patient sweat fell into line with the current European fad of "sweating out" disease. But it also propogated the idea that since the cure was in the New World, God must have put it there because the disease was from the New World.

Certainly, such a realization could not have helped public relations for the continutaion of exploration. In fact, Crosby offers the suggestion that early reports of the return of sailors with the disease may have been suppressed. After all, who would want to continue to travel to such an infested place? Some experts concede that the morals of the society contributed to the spread of the veneral form of syphillis. One could conclude two things from Crosby’s research and writing on the subject. One is that the disease still exists today, so sexual relations must not have been deterred too extremely by the threat of the disease. The second is that population in both the New World has increased over the subsequent centuries, so further exploration and immigration seems to have not felt much effect by the disease, either.

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