In the early 20th century, a scourge like no other had taken root deep in society. Early symptoms were relatively mild — rash, painless lumps, fever and ulcers — but months, even years later people succumbed to the disease’s deadly embrace. It was so deadly that sufferers happily signed on to barbaric tortures disguised as treatment just to sidestep what they knew to be a painful, protracted death.
I am talking, of course, about syphilis.
The story of syphilis in the early 20th century is an amazing journey from complete unknown to virtually-perfect cure. It went from a scourge that was incurable even with the most toxic remedies in the late 1800s to a simple injection just 50 years later. From deadly disease to mild annoyance in less time than it takes to build a Spanish cathedral.
In short, it was a medical miracle.
The advent of penicillin may have put a halt to all of the insane-sounding treatments that we tried for syphilis, but the legacy of miracle cures lives on. The 20th century was littered with diseases that suddenly went from death sentences to an uncomfortable conversation with your GP.
The problem is that 100 years’ later we are still looking for the next miraculous breakthrough.
And it’s looking less and less likely that we will ever find one.
At the advent of the 20th century, syphilis was a hot topic. No longer the killer pandemic of the 16- and 1700s, it was nevertheless a debilitating disease that was almost ubiquitous with insanity and death. Many — if not most —…