From a paleopathological point of view syphilis is a wonderful disease since it is so easy to diagnose from the remaining bones. To the diseased however a much dreaded fate awaited: If the disease did not kill you the cure propably did. From early on mercury was used in an attempt to cure syphilis. This should come as no surprise since the application of the mercury had been used to treat skin conditions from the 1300’s. As early as in 1496 Giorgio Sommariva of Verona is reported to have used mercury against syphilis and in 1502 Jacob Carpensic should have made himself a fortune by using mercury as a treatment against the disease. In 1936 Paracelsus proclaimed that mercury was the only propper cure against syphilis.
The mercury was administered in various fashions, including by mouth, by rubbing it on the skin, and by injection. One of the more curious methods was fumigation, in which the patient was placed in a closed box with his head sticking out. Mercury was placed inside the box and a fire started under the box, causing the mercury to vaporize. It was a grueling process for the patient and the least effective for delivering mercury to the body.
In the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries German candidates for the doctor's degree were made to take an oath that they would under no conditions prescribe mercury for their patients.
In 1905, Fritz Schaudinn and Erich Hoffmann discovered Treponema pallidum, the spiral shaped bacterial cause of syphilis. Researchers now had a target to use in a search for an even more effective therapy. One year later, the first effective test for syphilis, the Wassermann test, was developed.
As the disease became better understood, more effective treatments were found. An antimicrobial used for treating disease was the organo-arsenical drug Arsphenamine, developed in 1908 by Sahachiro Hata in the laboratory of Nobel prize winner Paul Ehrlich. The drug was originally called "606" because it was the sixth in the sixth group of compounds synthesized for testing; it was marketed by Hoechst AG under the trade name Salvarsan in 1910.
In 1928 Alexander Fleming discovered the anti-bacterial qualities of the mold penicillin, and the development of penicillin for use as a medicine is attributed to the Australian Nobel laureate Howard Walter Florey, together with the German Nobel laureate Ernst Chain and the English biochemist Norman Heatley. From the early 1940ies penicillin was mass-porduced and this led to a dramatic drop in the prevalence of syphilis as well as many other previously serious infectious diseases. It was introduced in a time when less than one out of every one hundred syphilis patients ever recovered. Penicillin is still used today to treat syphilis.
No. 1: Mercurial cream
No. 2: Mercurous chloride tablets
No. 3: Salvarsan treatment kit
No. 4: Bottle of Salvarsan
Photo No. 1: Mercurial cream used to treat syphilis, England, 1880-1941
Mercury was used as a common treatment for the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. Mercury had been a popular ‘cure’ for syphilis since the 1400s, although we now regard it as too toxic to use. The label reads "Made in accordance with the most recent formula as used by Col[onel] Lambkin, R.A.M.C." The R.A.M.C. stands for the Royal Army Medical Corps. In 1891 almost seven per cent of all medical discharges from the army were caused by venereal diseases and their effects. Venereal disease affected the health of soldiers who needed to be in top condition to face the enemy. Colonel Lambkin researched widely on syphilis and other STIs such as gonorrhoea, both in Britain and in the colonies of the British Empire.
Photo No. 2: Packet of mercurous chloride tablets, Kassel, Germany, 1914-1917
Mercurous chloride (HgCl) is also known as calomel. It was a popular drug from the 1800s onwards as it contained mercury, a chemical that was claimed to cure many illnesses. However, it slowly poisoned those who used it because mercury is toxic. Many of those taking such a drug would have been experiencing a venereal disease (VD) - probably syphilis. Calomel was used as an antiseptic and laxative during the First World War, but given the high rates of VD in the military it clearly proved useful in that context too. The packet contains calomel in tablet form to be taken orally. This packet was supplied by the 11th Army Corps of the German Army to its medical personnel and soldiers.
Photo No. 3: Salvarsan treatment kit for syphilis, Germany, 1909-1912
Salvarsan was a synthetic drug produced to treat the STI syphilis. The drug was developed by Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915), a German medical scientist, and his team in 1909 after three years of research. Ehrlich coined the phrase ‘magic bullet’ to describe this new wonder drug. The diluted yellow Salvarsan treatment was difficult and painful to inject and it did not cure syphilis overnight. As it was an arsenic based compound, it was also toxic. Salvarsan would later be replaced by antibiotics such as penicillin. The drug in the kit was made by a German manufacturer Farbwerke vorm Meister Lucius & Bruning AG and is stamped with the date "3 February 1912". It was sold by a British chemist, W Martindale, who added all the equipment to prepare injections.
Photo No. 4: Bottle of Salvarsan treatment for syphilis, London, England, 1909-1914
Salvarsan was a synthetic drug produced to treat the STI syphilis. The drug was developed by Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915), a German medical scientist and his team in 1909 after three years of research. German manufacturers had the monopoly on producing this wonder drug. With the outbreak of the First World War, British companies had to develop manufacturing techniques to supply the demand for Salvarsan. The only company with the capability to do so was Burroughs, Wellcome & Co. They produced Salvarsan under the brand name ‘Kharsivan’ from 1914 onwards.
Image source: sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/