One prolonged look at basically any historical moment brings into sight a plethora of irrational and unstable behaviors on the part of significant historical figures. As such, the role of syphilis in history - and its potential explanatory power for these seemingly inexplicable behaviors - has been the subject of a great deal of historical speculation. Famous people with syphilis include high-profile artists, such as Ludwig van Beethoven, and rulers, like Henry VIII. Their previously enigmatic behavior has been rendered completely in line with the symptoms associated with the condition.
Unfortunately, assertions about syphilis in history frequently cannot be verified; conjecture about behavior and personality and how they might have resulted from an STI must remain theoretical. Still, it is quite reasonable to assume that many historical figures were affected by syphilis.
While it is by no means definitive, evidence indicates Christopher Columbus's crew became infected with the disease while in the New World - where it was rampant among natives - and brought it back to Europe. Genetic studies indicate the disease originated in South America.
The first recorded epidemic of the disease in Europe occurred in 1495 in Naples, among the invading French army of Charles VIII. It's not clear what caused Columbus's demise, but his symptoms included arthritic pain, mental confusion and instability, inflammation of the eyes, and gout - all of which are consistent with undiagnosed and untreated syphilis.
- Age: Dec. at 55 (1451-1506)
- Birthplace: Genoa, Italy
- Profession: Navigator, Sailor, Explorer
- Photo: Chicago Bureau (Federal Bureau of Investigation) - Wide World Photos / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
When Al Capone assumed control of the Chicago Outfit, he took control of several cathouses. His status afforded him the opportunity to consort with many of his female employees. Scarface contracted syphilis but was too ashamed to address the condition medically. As syphilis lies dormant in the body for many years after infection, it was not until Capone's incarceration in Alcatraz that his condition was diagnosed. By then, Capone's brain function was already being affected to such a degree that he was eventually released from jail in 1939. When the public speculation began as to how soon Capone would reassert himself as a mob boss in Chicago, Capone associate Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik famously stated that it wasn't going to happen: "Al is nuttier than a fruitcake."
Capone quietly spent the last few weeks of his life in Palm Island, FL. He suffered a stroke, a symptom of syphilis, before perishing at age 48 on January 25, 1947.
- Age: Dec. at 48 (1899-1947)
- Birthplace: New York City, New York, United States of America
- Profession: Gangster, Mafioso, Racketeering
Because Adolf Hitler displayed many of its physical and mental symptoms throughout his life, syphilis has been frequently cited as a potential cause of his chronic illness and mental instability. Hitler was deeply concerned with his health and kept several doctors within his inner circle. One of them, Theodor Morell, was an acknowledged expert on treating syphilis. Hitler was diagnosed with heart- and nerve-related issues, which resulted in chest pain, tremors, digestive problems, and insomnia. The paranoid delusions and psychotic rage episodes that occurred later in his life are often signs of late-stage syphilis.
However, many of these symptoms could also be explained by other causes, including side effects of the bomb plot that almost ended his life, his strict vegetarian diet, and methamphetamine and opiate use, a practice introduced by Dr. Morell, who routinely injected Hitler with the drugs. Any diagnosis will always remain in the realm of speculation.
- Age: Dec. at 56 (1889-1945)
- Birthplace: Braunau am Inn, Austria
- Profession: Politician, Soldier, Writer, Artist
Abraham Lincoln did not marry until age 33. After the president's passing, his former law partner claimed that Lincoln had admitted to contracting syphilis around 1835. Lincoln spent time on the Mississippi River and in New Orleans and is rumored to have patronized cathouses while in the city.
His passing syphilis to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, would provide an excellent explanation for her eventual descent into hysteria. Before passing in 1882, she experienced other symptoms of untreated syphilis, like knife-like back pain, dementia, impaired coordination, weight loss, and, eventually, blindness. After President Lincoln's demise, only his brain was autopsied, so we'll never know if he was afflicted.
- Age: Dec. at 56 (1809-1865)
- Birthplace: Hodgenville, Kentucky, United States of America
- Profession: Statesman, Politician, Lawyer