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The Columbian Exchange and Diseases


Works Cited

Syphilis (1492-1600)

While diseases in the Columbian Exchange mostly came from the Europeans to the native peoples in the Americas, one disease did however make it from America to the Old World of Europe.  This disease was syphilis, unknown to Europeans at the time of Columbus' arrival to the Carribean.  It is believed that syphilis did in fact come back with Columbus when he reuturned from the New World.  But no one at that time could have expected the consequences that came with this disease.
The first syphilis outbreak in Europe occurred in Italy in the mid-1490's.  It was at this time that Charles VIII, the king of France, sent an army to Naples, Italy to claim the throne for him.  When this army would raid villiages, they not only pillaged people's property, but they also raped the members of the villages they raided.  And as the men raped the villagers, the spread of syphilis was easy, as it is very contgious through sexual intercourse.  And it continued to spread when Spain sent in an army to stop the French.  The Spanish soldiers also raped and pillaged villages as they went along, causing more destruction in the wake of the French.  Of course, when the soldiers left Naples and went back to all over Europe, the disease spread rapidly, striking people when the least expected it (  Due to this outbreak of the disease in the location of Naples, some called this the Italian disease or the Neapolitan disease.  And, of course, it was also called the Spanish disease by some because of Columbus bringing it back to the Old World of Europe (FirstSearch-Syphilis 1).  Soon, syphilis began to spread out all over Europe, especially through acts any sexual acts and the occupation of prostitution.  However, the disease soon mutated to give sufferers of this disease the same symptoms that people in the 21st century experience.  It wasn't until 1546, however, that syphilis became this way.  Before then, lesions usually covered a victim's body from the head to the knees.  This would eat the flesh away from people's  faces, klling them within a few short months (Diamond 9).
Treatments for syphilis at in the 15th and 16th Centuries were crude.  Mercury was mostly used for treatment of syphilis.  However, this treatment frequently caused sufferers to lose teeth and hair.  And obviously, mercury poisoning was so normal that most people treated with the element were killed from the treatment rather than from the disease.  However, the Guaiacum tree was a good and successful cure for syphilis.  In the West Indies, an ointment was made from the tree and was then placed on the lesions.  This allowed for most members of the medical field at that time to gain wealth from this treatment (
Syphilis affected not only Europeans' health, but also their social and religious behaviors.  The Holy Roman Empire believed syphilis to be an evil disease, only one coming from blasphemy and sexual misconduct.  Rulers of nations also had to change the way in which they ruled.  No longer could they have as many sexual partners as they wanted, for they feared of how syphilis would physically change their appearance if they contracted the venereal disease.  This possibly could explain why the reigns of some dynasties in different countries ended so soon.  Married women also began to not trust their husbands for fear that they would cheat on them and bring the disease home.  Public baths also became extinct as the disease moved in, as did common things such as a common cup and kissing between people (
Overall, syphilis became a raging epidemic among the Europeans that lasted for centuries.  Mercury and Guaiacum tree ointment were the main cures up until the 1800's.  And even though syphilis may not have had the same effects on the Europeans as smallpox had on the natives of the New World, syphilis caused great destruction and shaped the course for social and religious history of the Old World of Europe.