Syphilis, or the French Disease
Girolamo Fracastoro was born in northern Italy in 1478 and was appointed Professor of
Medicine at the University of Padua when he was just nineteen years old. In the 1490s
west Europeans encountered syphilis for the first time, and Fracastoro was on of the first
scholars to analyze this infection. The modern name syphilis comes from Fracastoro’s
Syphilis, or the French Disease,
an epic poem in three books, proposing that the sun god
of Haiti had inflicted this new disease on a shepherd boy named Syphilus who had
BOOK I, The Causes
What were the varied accidents of matter, what the seeds which brought on an
unaccustomed disease through long centuries seen by no one, which in our time raged
through all Europe, parts of Asia and through the cities of Africa? It burst into Italy with
the unhappy French wars and took its name from that people. Further what was the cure
and what the resource experience and man's great skill in straitened circumstances
discovered, and the help shown by the gods, and the gifts bestowed by heaven? These I
shall now begin to sing and through the liquid air and through the stars in vast Olympus I
shall search for causes far hidden: since Nature's quiet gardens with their fragrant
flowers and the Muses who love wonders invite me, gripped by a sweet love of this
strange event .
With diseases .
.. there is not one process of gestation for them all, the greatest
number are easy to observe, they have an easy birth, and their basic structure is obvious.
Others emerge more rarely and only after a long period of time are they finally able to
overcome the difficulties of their origins and a fate hard to unravel and deep darkness .
Of this kind is the dreadful plague that has lately come forth into the air and has
finally freed itself from black mists and in a difficult birth burst its bonds.
... [W]e must
conclude that this plague has been seen on earth not once but often, although up to now it
has not been known to us even by name .
Yet in the great ocean beneath the setting sun, where an unhappy race inhabits a
world lately discovered [the New World], it arises everywhere and there is not a place
where it is not commonly known. To such an extent can the causes of things and their
initial development vary according to the sky and length of time. And that which over
there the air and a suitable earth bear freely, here a long period of years has only just
brought upon us.
[Y]ou must .
.. reckon that the seat and origin of the evil are firmly fixed in the
very air, which pours in all directions round the whole earth, which infiltrates everywhere
through our bodies, and is accustomed to send these diseases among the race of living
creatures. For air is the father of all things and the author of their origin. This same
element often brings serious illnesses to mortals, since its soft material has in many ways
a natural tendency to putrefy, to be easily affected and to pass on the effects that it has