Syphilis: One of Five Infamous Epidemics We Hope We Never See

I first approached Jason and Mangesh because I wanted to write an article about rare skin diseases. After they finished retching, they said "No, thank you," but invited me to blog on less gruesome forms of weird science. You'll find a smorgasbord of such topics here in the weeks to come, including installments on food science, famous poisons and home inventions. Besides an abiding passion for medical trivia, I'm driven by a sense of wonder at the body, in sickness and in health. I hope you'll weigh in on what else you'd like to read. We begin today with a study of Syphilis, one of Five Infamous Epidemics We Hope We Never See.

alcapone.jpg "¢ There are popular theories that many famous people suffered syphilis, including Shakespeare, Beethoven, Lincoln, Nietzsche, Lenin, and Hitler, but the evidence is circumstantial in most of these cases. But Al Capone did have syphilis, a doozy of a case, and it got bad while he was in prison. By 1938, the Alcatraz inmate showed many of the classic symptoms: skin lesions, dementia, hallucinations, difficulty standing, seizures, and personality changes.

"¢ The conventional theory on syphilis is that Christopher Columbus and his crew brought it to Europe after sleeping with Native American women in the New World. Wherever it came from, syphilis rocked Europe. By 1700, a quarter of its population had "the great pox."

"¢ Syphilis has a rich history of recrimination—and lots of other names! Because of its association with Columbus, who sailed under Spanish flag, Europeans called it the Spanish disease. The French called syphilis the Neapolitan or Italian disease, because they caught it from residents of Naples, home of a major outbreak. The Russians called it a Polish disease. The Polish called it a Russian disease. The Turks called it a Christian disease. The English called syphilis the French Pox.

"¢ Syphilis was quite common in Shakespeare's England, and his characters often used it as a curse: "A pox o' your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, uncharitable dog!" (The Tempest 1.1.21) or "A pox of your houses" (Romeo and Juliet 3.1.60).

"¢ The conventional treatment for several hundred years was to inhale mercury vapor, which did kill the spirochete that causes syphilis—but it also poisoned the patient.

tuskegee.jpg"¢ From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study in rural Alabama. The idea was to examine the effects of untreated syphilis in 600 African-American men. But in the process, according to the CDC, the men were "never given adequate treatment for their disease." Some of the men weren't even told they had syphilis! The resulting investigation led to laws requiring that patients give their informed consent to participate in a study, but only after researchers must provide certain information to participants before a study begins. This principle now guides medical studies nationwide.

Coming Tomorrow: The Plague.

College Board Wants to Erase Thousands of Years From AP World History, and Teachers Aren't Happy

One would be forgiven for thinking that the Ides of March are upon us, because Julius Caesar is being taken out once again—this time from the Advanced Placement World History exam. The College Board in charge of the AP program is planning to remove the Roman leader, and every other historical figure who lived and died prior to 1450, from high school students’ tests, The New York Times reports.

The nonprofit board recently announced that it would revise the test, beginning in 2019, to make it more manageable for teachers and students alike. The current exam covers over 10,000 years of world history, and according to the board, “no other AP course requires such an expanse of content to be covered over a single school year.”

As an alternative, the board suggested that schools offer two separate year-long courses to cover the entirety of world history, including a Pre-AP World History and Geography class focusing on the Ancient Period (before 600 BCE) up through the Postclassical Period (ending around 1450). However, as Politico points out, a pre-course for which the College Board would charge a fee "isn’t likely to be picked up by cash-strapped public schools," and high school students wouldn't be as inclined to take the pre-AP course since there would be no exam or college credit for it.

Many teachers and historians are pushing back against the proposed changes and asking the board to leave the course untouched. Much of the controversy surrounds the 1450 start date and the fact that no pre-colonial history would be tested.

“They couldn’t have picked a more Eurocentric date,” Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, who previously helped develop AP History exams and courses, told The New York Times. “If you start in 1450, the first thing you’ll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade. The first thing you’ll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things. It’s not a start date that encourages looking at the agency and creativity of people outside Europe.”

A group of teachers who attended an AP open forum in Salt Lake City also protested the changes. One Michigan educator, Tyler George, told Politico, “Students need to understand that there was a beautiful, vast, and engaging world before Europeans ‘discovered’ it.”

The board is now reportedly reconsidering its decision and may push the start date of the course back some several hundred years. Their decision will be announced in July.

[h/t The New York Times]

North America: East or West Coast?


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