The sexually transmitted disease syphilis is generally thought to have been imported into Europe from the Americas in the late fifteenth century as part of the 'Columban exchange', in which other diseases, notably smallpox, travelled in the other direction, with terrible consequences for Native American society. It spread rapidly through Europe, spread above all by armies moving across the continent in the many wars of the time. Painters from Dürer to Rembrandt represented the ravage it wrought, while the threat it posed gave rise to numerous treatments in literature and drama (notably Ibsen' Ghosts) and strongly affected attitudes to sexuality and prostitution, both explored in this lecture. It remained common well into the twentieth century and still kills millions worldwide every year; reasonably effective treatment only became possible just before the First World War, and the search for a complete cure led to dangerous medical experiments on involuntary human subjects later in the twentieth century, raising major issues of medical ethics.
The transcript and downloadable versions of the lecture are available from the Gresham College website:
Gresham College has been giving free public lectures since 1597. This tradition continues today with all of our five or so public lectures a week being made available for free download from our website. There is currently over 1,300 lectures free to access or download from the website.