The expansion of commerce, warfare and travel transformed the patterns of epidemic disease in the 15th century. One of these diseases, syphilis, presented itself in Europe as an epidemic shortly after Columbus returned from the Americas in 1493. This sparked a debate amongst epidemiologists that has lasted for over 500 years-where did syphilis come from?
Syphilis in the New World
While many believe that syphilis came from the old world, there is strong proof that it actually came from the new world. Between the 1500s and early 1600s, renaissance physicians adapted the “Columbus Theory”, stating that Columbus did indeed bring syphilis from the new world. There is plenty of information available that supports this theory. Bartolome de las Casas went to the Americas and stated that, “I, for my part, took the trouble to enquire several times from the Indians of this land if the sickness has been there for a long time, and they replied in the affirmative.” (Deborah Hayden, p.15) Fernandez de Oviedo, a nobleman from Madrid interviewed Columbus and his sailors, and states that “This malady (the bubas) comes from the Indes, where it is very common amongst the Indians . . The first time this sickness was seen in Spain was after Admiral Don Christopher Columbus had discovered the Indes and returned from those lands.” (Deborah Hayden, p.15)
Kristin Harper, Emory Univerity's molecular genetics researcher
Kristin Harper, Emory Univerity's molecular genetics researcher
Researchers are continuing to prove the Columbus Theory true today. Most recently, researchers at Emory University did a study of 26 geographically scattered strains of a family of bacteria (Treponemes), which is behind syphilis and related to yaws. This research showed that the venereal syphilis causing strains of treponemes were closely related to the infection that is isolated in South America and gives rise to yaws. Kristin Harper, Emory molecular genetics researcher claims that this “Supports the hypothesis that syphilis. . . came from the new world”. Evidence of syphilis was also found in skeletons in the Dominican Republic, an area visited by Columbus and his crew.
It is clear that there is a great chance that syphilis did originate in the new world. Columbus and his crew easily could have carried the nonveneral bacteria to Europe, and from there it could have mutated into syphilis.

This map shows the shifts in the forms of syphilis
This map shows the shifts in the forms of syphilis

Syphilis in the Old World
Although not as great as the number of historians and scientists who believe that syphilis came from the New World, there is a group who believes that syphilis had been present in the Old World before Columbus returned from America. Some say that if syphilis had been observed on the ship, it would have been on the ship’s log. Other writers speculate whether syphilis only flared up in 1495. They support this thesis with the reason that when leprosy faded after the Black Death, syphilis may have become more distinctively visible. Ancient and medieval sources such as “passages from the Bible, Galen’ writings, medieval texts and works of literature, and Arabic sources…” (Magner, Hendrick, Flannery, pg.5) have been used in order to prove this belief as well. Many of researchers argue that cases described as leprosy and other diseases in these writings are actually misdiagnoses of syphilis.

The most widely accepted reason people believe that syphilis did not originate in the New World is the number of pre-Columbian skeletons that “have been found with distinctive signs of syphilis.” (PBS, paragraph 1). Some of the signs of syphilis in skeletons are “thickening in the lower leg bones and pitting in the skull.” (PBS, paragraph 4). These skeletons have been discovered in various locations over Europe including England, Italy, and Israel. Those who hold the opposing view often question the validity of these skeletons as they could have had a disease with similar signs such as yaws. At the same time, acceptors of the Old World origin use this possibility to form another theory. The theory states that there is “one germ whose effects vary with climate and means of transmission.” (Karlen, pgs. 126-127). For example, in Africa syphilis would appear as yaws, in Latin America it would be pinta, and in Neolithic villages to the Middle East it would emerge as bejel. Shifts between the diseases have been reported to support this theory.

As shown by the opposing views on the origin of syphilis, the debate is not as simple as one may think. Undoubtedly the New World origin is more accepted by scientists and historians. However, both sides present very strong evidence (including skeletons) to support their theories. It is unsure whether we will ever know the true origin of syphilis.

Works Cited

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Clark, Carol. "Emory Magazine: Spring 2008: Tracing the Origins of Syphilis." Emory University Home Page. (accessed January 12, 2010).
"Did Columbus Bring Syphilis to Europe?: Scientific American." Science News, Articles and Information | Scientific American. (accessed January 12, 2010).

Hayden, Deborah. "The Revenge of the Americas." Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis. New York: Basic Books, 2003. 16. Print.
"Historic Dispute : Did syphilis originate in the New World, from which it was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus and his crew." Science Clarified. (accessed January 12, 2010).
Karlen, Arno. "Microbes Reply." Man and Microbes: Disease and Plagues in History and Modern Times. Touchstone Ed ed. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996. 124-127. Print.
Magner, Lois , Robert Hendrick, and Maura Flannery. "Historic Dispute : Did syphilis originate in the New World, from which it was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus and his crew - page 5 | Science in Dispute." Find Articles at BNET | News Articles, Magazine Back Issues & Reference Articles on All Topics. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Jan. 2010. <;col1>.
Rose, Mark. "Origins of Syphilis." Archaeology Magazine. Archeological Institute of America, n.d. Web. 4 Jan. 2010. <>.
"SECRETS OF THE DEAD . The Syphilis Enigma | PBS." PBS. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Jan. 2010. <>.

Wilford, John Noble. "Genetic Study Bolsters Columbus Link to Syphilis - New York Times." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. (accessed January 12, 2010).