DID CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS HAVE SYPHILIS?

Introduction:Throughout history a debate has been formed concerning Christopher Columbus and the disease, Syphilis. Many researchers and historians have worked through documents, historical facts and biological evidence in order to form a conclusion to this great controversy. Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World in search of India but instead stumbled upon America. There it is said that he contracted syphilis thus configuring a world of questions and debate. Today, it is still inconspicuous whether Columbus was infected with this ravaging illness and yet researchers are still trying to find answers.
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The first debate includes evidence relating to multiple symptoms Columbus experienced throughout his voyage. The drama began soon after Columbus’s crew sailed into Palos, Spain on March 15, 1493. For fifteen years Columbus complained about incurable ailments. In April 1494 he suffered an intermittent fever and that only increased along with drowsiness that September. For several weeks Columbus underwent his loss of vision, memory and all other senses including a feeling of delirium. It was recorded that he would lay in stupor, knowing little and remembering nothing. Columbus suffered five months of illness including oozing at the eyes. Sadly enough it came to a point where he was incapable of feeding or caring for himself.
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On his return voyage to Hispaniola in 1498 the symptoms became extensively more aggressive. This included higher fevers, unbearable fatigue and insomnia. Upon his arrival he found 160 Spaniards, 20-30% of the total population sick with his symptoms. Also he suffered severe attacks of gout. It came to such a fatal point where his eyes were bleeding and his joints were inflamed. These symptoms are all ones shown in second degree Syphilis. Not only were there physical ailments but it began to take a toll on his state of mind. He admits to hearing voices, claiming they were from God. Towards the end of his life when the illness was still affecting him, he suffered the beginnings of paralysis. His death on May, 20 1506 was due to a heart attack with damage to his heart valves.

These records have been studied and analyzed over the years and theories have been formed. Thomas Parran, one of the originators of infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, first suggests that Columbus’s death was due to Syphilis. His whole body from the chest down implies this theory. There was significant damage to his heart valves, his limbs were paralyzed and his brain was vitally affected. These ailments are all late, fatal symptoms of Syphilis. Another researcher, Anton Luger, resembles these symptoms to that of general paresis or taboparesis, both being conditions of late syphilis.



Syphilis Symptoms

-open sores called chancres
-skin rash

-flu-like symptoms
-fever
-fatigue

-headache
-sore throat
-hair loss
-weight loss

-swollen lymph glands throughout body
-damage to the heart, eyes, brain, nervous system, bones, joints
-secondary syphilis symptoms can last for years
-Paralysis
-dementia

-final stage: mental illness, blindness, heart disease, and death.

The symptoms marked in red indicate those of which Columbus had suffered. This displays how many of the syphilis symptoms he acquired, thus backing up the theory that he had this illness.

Witnesses from Haiti have accumulated theories over this disputed matter. One man, Captain Gonzalo Fernandes Oviedo y Valdes, who lived in Haiti quotes, “Many times in Italy did I laugh, hearing the Italians say the French disease, and the French calling it the disease of Naples; and in truth both would have hit on the right name if they had called it The Disease from the Indies, Great was the wonder produced in all that saw it, not only because the disease was contagious and horrible but because many died from this disease.” Also one humanitarian among the Spanish explorers, La Casas, agrees with Oviedo in that, the natives of Haiti spread Syphilis to the new white race. He was known as the apostle of the Indies and was much concerned with the welfare of the Indians. These primary witnesses provide us with the knowledge that syphilis came from the New World thus backing up the theory that Columbus was infected.

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From this information one can conclude that Columbus not only had syphilis, but suffered from it severely. However, this theory is still not proven and researchers and archeologists are desperate for more answers. Experiments have been done in order to find the answer to this mysterious question. These studies are not successful in providing clear answers or proving whether Columbus had syphilis or not. However, with new findings come new clues that researchers can draw some conclusions from.
One significant study was done at Emory University by Kristen Harper. Along with fellow colleagues, she used phylogenetics, the study of evolutionary relatedness between organisms, to examine 26 geographically disparate strains of the bacteria that causes syphilis. This bacterium is known as treponemes and from this research they concluded that this disease originated recently and their closest relatives were strains of yaws coming from South America. From this they have now steadily concluded that the ancestor of syphilis came from the New World, how and what are the questions we still seek.

Although there is accumulated information and studies siding with our first evidence, the theory is still not proven due to other findings. One in particular that contradicts Columbus carrying syphilis was that in the United Kingdom. Skeletons were unearthed from a medieval friary that shows unquestionable signs of syphilis. This suggests that England was bombarded by syphilis at least 50 years before Columbus’s voyage. There were a thickened leg and arm bones and scars on the skull. The pattern of these markings is inevitably syphilis. Although 18th and 19th century archeologists had discovered plenty of diseased remains at prehistoric sites in the Americas, they found no traces of the disease in European bones until a major epidemic hit Europe about 1500, just after Columbus returned from his 1493 voyage. In the last decade, however, researchers have unearthed about a dozen pre- Columbian skeletons in England and Ireland that also showed signs of the disease.[i]


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[i] 2000 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/contents/summary/289/5480/723c



Works Cited
Crosby, Jr., Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange. Westport CT: Greenwood, 1972. Print.
Hayden, Deborah. Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis. New York: Basic Books, 2003.

“Secrets of the Dead: The Syphilis Enigma.” PBS.
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/previous_seasons/case_syphilis/index.html

Handwerk, Brian. “Did Columbus Bring Syphilis to Europe?” National Geographic. 16 January 2008. Available at: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/01/080116-columbus-syphilis.html

Crosby, Jr., Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange. Westport CT: Greenwood, 1972. Print.

Stein, Lisa. "Did Columbus bring Syphilis to Europe?" ScientificAmerican.com. 15 Jan. 2008. Web.
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=did-columbus-bring-syphilis-to-europe.


"Columbus, Syphilis, and English Monks." Science. 4 Aug. 2000. Web. http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/289/5480/723c.

"How did Columbus die?" Web log post. Blog Critics. 15 Jan. 2007. Web. <http://blogcritics.org/scitech/article/q-how-did-columbus-die/>.