Saturday 22 December 2012

Pox: Genius, Madness and the Mysteries of Syphilis – Deborah Hayden (2003)

Before the antibiotic era syphilis was one of the most feared diseases on the planet. Now of course a dose of penicillin is enough to cure an infection. Yet as the author notes, syphilis still persists even though it has not become resistant to antibiotics, although the worst it can do is rarely seen in the modern age. After reading this book I’m grateful to be living in the antibiotic era (the right side of 1945). Pox tells the story of many famous men and women who suffered from syphilis and the mercury ‘cures’ that were almost worse than the disease itself. The blurb on the dust jacket also promised to reveal the extent of syphilis’s influence on art, achievement and thought since the fifteenth century, something that influenced my decision to read the book.
It’s easy to see syphilis as the New World’s ultimate revenge for its brutal colonization by European powers. The first major historical figure examined is Christopher Columbus, who was almost certainly one of the first syphilitic Europeans. Europeans introduced a multitude of new diseases into the native populations of the New World, but the one they brought back with them would curse Europe for centuries to come. When Columbus and his men sailed back into Spain in 1493 the syphilis plague began soon after, with the first major outbreak in Naples in 1495.

The intriguing case of Columbus and his men is just the first of many. In chronological order the supposed syphilitic lives of such historical figures as Beethoven, Schubert, Abraham Lincoln, Vincent van Gogh, Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and Adolf Hitler are examined. It makes for a disturbing yet fascinating read.

Hayden is a quality writer, described as an “independent scholar” on the inside of the dust jacket; she manages to avoid the academic solipsism that can ruin some non-fiction. The short introductionary piece called Cactus Flower – Portrait of a Syphilitic, creatively reveals what it would have been like before the anti-biotic era to contract syphilis – the horror, the desperation, the futile attempts to find a cure and the crippling need for secrecy. During the course of the book the nefarious power of the disease is revealed; the initial infection, the often long secondary phase in which syphilis mimics many other diseases and finally the tertiary phase of euphoria and insanity. It’s the last phase that elicits the most fascination and makes you wonder about what kind of symbiotic relationship the spirochete has had with these important historical figures.

Ludwig van Beethoven is a fascinating case. Although is it not absolutely certain that he had syphilis, the evidence is strong. His deafness, rages, cardiac arrhythmias (something he apparently set to music – piano sonata opus 81a les adieux) and general ill health could all be attributed to syphilis. Hayden notes that Beethoven was often seen “wildly stomping” around the streets of Vienna during the last years of his life with hair flying and looking like a tramp – behavior that can be attributed to tertiary syphilis.

Less certain though, is the matter of Beethoven’s musical genius. Could his creative powers be ascribed in part to the influence of the syphilitic spirochete? The same question can be asked about van Gough’s intense paintings. What about Oscar Wilde’s beautiful writing and mordant wit, or James Joyce’s groundbreaking prose? Initially Pox does seem to promise answers, but in fact Hayden skirts around trying to establish such a premise and mainly concentrates on establishing whether these individuals did in fact have syphilis. Pox is basically an academic retrospective detective story featuring some of history’s most influential characters. It’s fascinating stuff, but not as controversial as it initially promises to be. However it doesn’t take much consideration to come to the conclusion that if Hayden had attempted to establish that some of history’s greatest creative minds had owed their inspiration to the syphilis spirochete, then she would have left herself open to severe criticism.

Hayden ends her gallery of syphilitics with Adolf Hitler, which ironically makes the question of syphilis’s influence more pressing. Hayden reveals Hitler as having all the hallmarks of syphilis and examines the theory that a Jewish prostitute possibly infected Hitler when he was a young man. The evidence Hayden presents is certainly compelling. What does this mean regarding how we think about the Holocaust and WWII itself? Would the holocaust had of eventuated if Hitler had not made a fateful visit to a prostitute? If antibiotics had been invented just a few decades earlier would the worst of WWII have been avoided? Of course it’s far more complex than that, but overall Hayden leaves the reader with much to consider, including a new macabre respect for syphilis and its almost symbiotic relationship with those it infects.


  1. There is a very entertaining book called Rats, Lice and History by Hans Zinsser which considers similar questions with regard to epidemic diseases (particularly typhus) and how they may have altered history. I recall reading about the 1495 outbreak of Syphilis in Western Europe and how much the disease changed in virulence and severity within the first 50 years. Given that it was still one of the most feared diseases before antibiotics were introduced, it must have truly terrifying in the 15th Century.

  2. I think I've seen that book come through the library. It's certainly an interesting question and I do believe personally that diseases have altered history, but just how much we'll never know.

    Have a great christmas!