Syphilis Can't Be Blamed on Columbus

Skeletons indicate the disease was in Europe before he sailed
By Luke Roney,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 28, 2015 11:30 AM CST
Finally, Some Good News for Columbus: Syphilis Isn't His Fault
A pigeon sits on a statue of Christopher Columbus during a civic ceremony honoring Columbus outside Union Station in Washington, Monday, Oct. 8, 2007.   (AP Photos/Susan Walsh)

Say what you will about Christopher Columbus … just don’t say that he’s the father of syphilis in Europe. Because, according to Austrian researchers, he’s probably not, the Local reports. It has long been held that members of Columbus’ crew during his first voyage to the Americas in the late 15th century contracted syphilis from the natives and brought the sexually transmitted disease back to Europe. After all, the Local notes, the first recorded outbreak of syphilis occurred in Naples in 1495, just a couple years after Columbus returned from the New World. However, findings published this month in the Journal of Biological and Clinical Anthropology indicate otherwise. Researchers from the Medical University of Vienna found evidence of congenital syphilis in skeletons in Austria that date back as early as 1320—more than 170 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Congenital syphilis is a form of the disease passed from mother to child. Teeth from the skeletons, exhumed at St. Pölten, Austria, show evidence of the disease, including Hutchinson’s teeth (widely spaced incisors with central notches) and Mulberry molars (excess enamel on the molars). Further study will be done to confirm the findings, per a press release. Syphilis—which, according to the Mayo Clinic, can cause organ damage and even death if left untreated—is still thriving today. Some 36 million people have the disease worldwide, the Telegraph reports, and in the US, cases of syphilis (along with chlamydia and gonorrhea) have risen nationally for the first time in nearly a decade, according to UPI. (Click for 5 takes on Columbus Day.)

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