The origin of syphilis. Clinical and epidemiologic considerations on the Columbian theory

Sex Transm Dis. Mar-Apr 1993;20(2):110-7.


It is an unpleasant vogue of our day to soil the image of outstanding personalities. Christopher Columbus is blamed for the crimes and cruelties that were committed in the New World after his landing in San Salvador as well as for the import of syphilis from West India to Europe. Attempts to trace the origin of the pandemic of syphilis at the verge of the fifteenth century concluded with the myth that the disease was contracted in Haiti by members of Columbus' crew who later joined the army of Charles VIII of France and participated in the siege of Naples. The surrender of the town on February 22, 1495, at 4 pm (natal hour of syphilis) was followed by orgies, which led to infection of all participants, particularly of all soldiers, who then spread the disease on their journey back to France. This story is refuted on the ground of epidemiologic and clinical facts. Most of the crew of Columbus' first trip joined the admiral in his second expedition, too, left Europe on February 24, 1494, and did not return before June 11, 1496 (87 days, or 12.4 weeks). With not more than approximately 10 persons arriving in Naples for such a short stay, an endemic of syphilis of such grave proportions could not have occurred. The disease has an incubation period of 4 weeks and a contagiosity rate of approximately 30%. In addition, 2 years and 47 days had passed between the departure from Haiti and the arrival in Naples.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Disease Outbreaks / history*
  • Europe / epidemiology
  • Female
  • History, 15th Century
  • History, 16th Century
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Syphilis / epidemiology
  • Syphilis / history*
  • Syphilis / transmission