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Cholera Epidemics in the 19th Century

The Great Plague of London, 1665

The Boston Smallpox Epidemic, 1721

“Pestilence” and the Printed Books of the Late 15th Century

Spanish Influenza in North America, 1918–1919

Syphilis, 1494–1923

Tropical Diseases and the Construction of the Panama Canal, 1904–1914

Tuberculosis in Europe and North America, 1800–1922

The Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia, 1793

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Syphilis, 1494–1923

Des Inoculations Syphilitiques: Lettres, Paris, 1849. From the holdings of Center for the History of Medicine/Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine—Harvard Medical School
Des Inoculations Syphilitiques. From the holdings of Center for the History of Medicine/Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine—Harvard Medical School.

Syphilis was first reported in Europe in 1494 among soldiers (and their camp followers) involved in a war between France and Naples. The disease was striking in two ways: for its unpleasantness and for its status as a new disease, unknown to the ancient medical authorities. Syphilis would remain a significant social and medical problem through the mid-20th century.

The “French Disease”

Until the 19th century, syphilis was known by many different names, but the most common was the “French Disease.” (The French called it the “Neopolitan disease,” in a pattern that would repeat itself elsewhere. Russians, for instance, sometimes called it the “Polish disease.”)


Syphilis is generally believed to have come originally from the New World, imported into Europe by Christopher Columbus’s sailors after their famous voyage of 1492. Two important early experiences with syphilis are recorded in Grunpeck’s ca. 1496 Tractatus de pestilentiali scorra sive male de Franzos (also available in the vernacular German, and Ulrich von Hutten’s ca. 1519, Of the vvood called guaiacum, that healeth the Frenche pockes. Fracastoro is credited with naming the disease in his 1530 poem, “Syphilis.”

Morality and Regulation

The sexual nature of syphilis transmission and its contagiousness was noticed from the start. In Europe and the United States, the disease has long been connected with questions of morality, both individual and societal. Women were often assumed to be the source of infection, and, in the 19th century, the regulation of prostitution in order to control the spread of venereal disease became a priority in many European countries. England’s Contagious Diseases Acts are an example of this. Social hygiene—the attempt to regulate and control disease-causing behavior, especially that related to venereal disease, though moral self-discipline and legislation—was of great importance in the late 19th and early 20th century United States as well.


Before the Wasserman blood test—the first widely used serum diagnosis test for syphilis—was developed in 1906, diagnosing syphilis relied on the evaluation of visible symptoms like lesions, rashes, and chancres. Regulated prostitutes were sometimes examined every few days. Though it could produce false positives and though performing the test required great skill on the part of the laboratory technician, the Wasserman test affected both the social and the medical understanding of syphilis, because it could reveal the disease at the asymptomatic stage. This meant that a syphilitic might be a person with no current outward manifestation of disease who could have or spread syphilis without realizing it.

Treatments: Mercury, “Syphilization,” and Salvarsan

Effective treatment for syphilis was controversial because of the perception that a widely available cure would increase “immoral” behavior.

Until the early 20th century, the primary treatment for syphilis was mercury, in the form of calomel, ointments, steam baths, pills, and other concoctions. Side effects of mercury treatments could include tooth loss; mouth, throat, and skin ulcerations; neurological damage; and death.

Guaiacum, a New World tree, was the source of another early treatment for syphilis used in the 16th century. Numerous patent medicines were also developed, especially in the 19th century, often with euphemistic names and advertising.


In the mid–19th century, European physicians conducted experiments in “syphilization”, often on hospitalized prostitutes. “Syphilization” was the name given to repeated inoculations with syphilis matter in order to “saturate” the subject, on the theory that the larger the number of visible, or “primary,” lesions, the less likely it was that secondary syphilis would develop.

“Syphilization” was also used as a preventative, analogous to smallpox inoculation.


The syphilis spirochete organism, a bacterium, was discovered in 1905. In 1908, Sahachiro Hata, working in Paul Ehrlich’s laboratory, discovered the arsenic compound arsphenamine that became known after 1910 by its brand name, Salvarsan. It was also known as “606” because it was the 606th compound Hata and Ehrlich tested. Salvarsan was the first effective specific chemotherapy against syphilis, although it could involve an extended series of treatments and cause serious side effects.


Selected Contagion Resources

This is a partial list of digitized materials available in Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. For additional materials on the topic “Syphilis, 1494–1923,” click here or search the collection’s Catalog and Full Text databases.

Web Pages

Concepts of Contagion and Epidemics
Florence Nightingale, 1820–1910
Germ Theory
“Pestilence” and the Printed Books of the Late 15th Century
Public Health


The “French Disease”

Fracastoro, Girolamo. Hieronymi Fracastorii Syphilis, sive, Morbus Gallicus. Apud Jonam Bowyer, MDCCXX [1720].
Grünpeck, Joseph. Tractatus de Pestilentiali Scorra sive Mala de Franzos: Originem Remediaqu[ue] Eiusdem Continens. Nuremberg: Kaspar Hochfeder, 1496 or 1497.
Grünpeck, Joseph. Ein hubscher Tractat von dem Ursprung des bosen Franzos, das man nennet die wilden Wartzen: auch ein Regime[n]t und ware Ertzenney mit Salben und Gedranck, wie man sich regiren soll in diser Zeyt. Nuremberg: Kaspar Hochfeder, 1496 or 1497.
Hutten, Ulrich von. Of the VVood Called Guaiacum, That Healeth the Frenche Pockes, and Also Helpeth the Goute in the Feete, the Stoone, the Palsey, Lepree, Dropsy, Fallynge Euyll, and Other Dyseases. Londini: in ædibus Thomas Berthes …, 1539.

Morality and Regulation

American Social Hygiene Association. The Social Hygiene Bulletin. Vol. 4, no. 1 (Jan. 1917)–v. 9, no. 12 (Dec. 1922). New York: 1917–1922.
Association for Promoting the Extension of the Contagious Diseases Act, 1866, to the Civil Population of the United Kingdom. Report on the Extent of Venereal Disease, on the Operation of the Contagious Diseases Act, and the Means of Checking Contagion: With Appendix. London: Published for the Associaton by H. Baillière, 1868.
Johnson, Bascom. Next Steps: A Program of Activities Against Prostitution and Venereal Diseases. Washington, D.C.: War Dept., Commission on Training Camp Activities, c1918.
Parent-Duchâtelet, A.-J.-B. De la Prostitution dans la Ville de Paris: Considérée sous le Rapport de l’Hygiène Publique, de la Morale et de l’Administration: Ouvrage Appuyé de Documens Statistiques Puisés dans les Archives de la Préfecture de Police. Paris: J.–B. Baillière, 1836.
United States. Detention Houses and Reformatories as Protective Social Agencies in the Campaign of the United States Government Against Venereal Diseases. Washington, D.C.: G.P.O., 1922.


Browning, Carl H. Recent Methods in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Syphilis: The Wasserman Serum Reaction and Ehrlich’s Salvarsan. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger, 1912.
Egan, John. Syphilitic Diseases: Their Pathology, Diagnosis, and Treatment: Including Experimental Researches on Inoculation as a Differential Agent in Testing the Character of These Affections. London: J. Churchill, 1853.
Sachs, Hans. Beiträge zur Theorie und Praxis der Wassermann’schen Syphilisreaktion. [Berlin? : s.n., 1908?].
Vidal, Auguste-Théodore. Des Inoculations Syphilitiques: Lettres. Paris : J.-B. Baillière, 1849.
Wassermann, A. Eine Serodiagnostische Reaktion bei Syphilis. Leipzig?: s.n., 1906?.

Treatments: Mercury, “Syphilization,” and Salvarsan

Colles, Abraham, 1773–1843. Selections from the Works of Abraham Colles: Consisting Chiefly of His Practical Observations on the Venereal Disease: And on the Use of Mercury. Edited, with annotations, by Robert McDonnell (forthcoming). London: New Sydenham Society, 1881.
Martindale, W. Harrison (William Harrison) and W Wynn Westcott. “Salvarsan” or “606” (dioxy-diamino-arsenobenzol): Its Chemistry, Pharmacy and Therapeutics. York: P.B. Hoeber, 1911.
Fronmüller, Bernhard. Die Curative Syphilisation. Würzburg: Stahel, 1860.
Murchison, Charles. On the Experiments of Dr. Casimiro Sperino, of Turin, on the Subject of Syphilization. Edinburgh: Sutherland and Knox, 1852.
Sperino, Casimiro. La Sifilizzazione: Studiata qual Mezzo Curativo e Preservativo delle Malattie Veneree. Torino: Pons, 1853.

Other Medical Works

Astruc, Jean. A Treatise of the Venereal Disease: In Six Books: Containing an Account of the Original, Propagation, and Contagion of This Distemper in General: As Also of the Nature, Cause, and Cure of all Venereal Disorders in Particular, Whether Local or Universal: Together with an Abridgment of the Several Discourses, Which Have Been Written Upon This Subject from the First Appearance of the Venereal Disease in Europe to This Time, with Critical Remarks Upon Them. London: Printed for W. Innys and R. Manby … , C. Davis … , and J. Clarke … , MDCCXXXVII [1737].
Lagneau, Louis-Vivant. Traité Pratique des Maladies Syphilitiques: Contenant les Diverses Méthodes de Traitement qui leur sont Applicables, et les Modifications qu’on doit leur faire Subir Suivant l’Age, le Sexe, le Tempérament du Sujet, les Climats, les Saisons, et les Maladies Concomitantes: Ouvrage ou se sont Spécialement Détaillées les Règles de Traitement Adoptées à l'’ospice des Vénériens de Paris. Torino: Pons, 1853.
Mayer, Moritz. Ueber Syphilis und ihre Formen. Erlangen: Gedruckt in der Barfus'schen Universitäts-Buchdr., 1843.
Ricord, Ph. A Practical Treatise on Venereal Diseases, or, Critical and Experimental Researches on Inoculation: Applied to the Study of These Affections: With a Therapeutical Summary and Special Formulary. New York: P. Gordon, 1842.


The following sources were used in writing this page.

Arrizabalaga, Jon, Henderson, John and French, Roger. The Great Pox: The French Disease in Renaissance Europe. New York and London: Yale University Press, 1997.
Baldwin, Peter. Contagion and the State in Europe, 1830–1930. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Brandt, Allan M. No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Veneral Disease in the United States Since 1880. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Susan P. Conner. “Politics, Prostitution, and the Pox in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1799.” Journal of Social History, Vol. 22, No. 4. (Summer, 1989), pp. 713-734.
Corbin, Alain. Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France after 1850. Alan Sheridan, trans. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Fleck, Ludwik. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Harsin, Jill. Policing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Harrison, Mark. Disease and the Modern World: 1500 to the Present Day. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004.
Levine, Philippa. Prostitution, Race, and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Merians, Linda E., ed. The Secret Malady: Venereal Disease in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
Quétel, Claude. History of Syphilis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, 1990.
Walkowitz, Judith R. Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State. Cambridge University Press, 1980.


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