Syphilis and friendly ethnic relations

Syphilis is thought to have been brought back from America by Christopher Columbus’s fellow travelers. In Europe, it first manifested in Naples and so came to be called “the disease of Naples,” though most Italians came to call it the “French Pox.”

As it made its way across Europe and then Asia, syphilis acquired a variety of ethnically … ummm … sensitive names. As Roy Porter tells it, syphilis was called “the Spanish disease in Holland, the Polish disease in Russia, the Russian disease in Siberia, the Christian disease in Turkey and the Portuguese disease in India and Japan.” The Portuguese called it the “Castilian disease,” and when it made its way all the way to Tahiti, the natives called it the “British disease.”

What do all of these hostile labels imply for harmony between nations and peace for all mankind, given that syphilis “began with genital sores, progressing to a general rash, to ulceration, and to revolting abscesses eating into bones and destroying the nose, lips and genitals, and often proving fatal”?


That’s from Porter’s thoroughly enjoyable The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity (p. 166). Thoroughly enjoyable, that is, except for all the scary parts that make me glad to be living in the twenty-first century.

Though to be on the safe side, I am considering a new resolution: Never have sex with foreigners.

[Update: Medieval English monks with syphilis? Probably not correctly dated, as this follow up argues (Thanks to WG).]

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