Columbus cleared of bringing syphilis to Europe

Treponema pallidum
Electron micrograph of Treponema pallidum on cultures of cotton-tail rabbit epithelium cells (Sf1Ep). Treponema pallidum is the causative agent of syphilis. Image credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
( -- A long-held theory has it that Christopher Columbus and his crew returned to Europe in 1493 from their trip to the Americas bringing syphilis with them, and research reported in PhysOrg in 2008 also suggested Columbus was to blame. Now an excavation of skeletons in a London cemetery has unearthed seven skeletons that suggest the disease was present in Europe nearly two centuries earlier.

The seven skeletons unearthed at St Mary Spital in East London have rough patches on their limbs and skulls suggestive of syphilis. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted caused by the Treponema pallidum and before were available it was often fatal, causing damage to the brain, heart, and eyes. It also produced tell-tale indentations in the skull and other bones, and could be passed on to the children of sufferers.

One of the skeletons found at St Mary Spital was that of a child about 10 years old. Osteologist Brian Connell of the Museum of London, who studied the skeletons, said the child had teeth growing at an angle of 45 degrees through the jaw because of the disease, and the “looks like a lunar landscape. He said the finding caused “a bit of a stir” because the symptoms of syphilis were so obvious.

Connell said he believes the bodies were buried well before Columbus set sail, since radiocarbon dating of bone samples dates two of them at 1200 to 1250 and the five others at 1250 to 1400. Radiocarbon dating is an estimated 95 percent accurate, and other objects such as coins were found in the vicinity that corroborate the date estimates.

Connell said a pandemic of swept through Europe in 1495 and everyone at the time was seeking a scapegoat: the English called it the French pox, the Tahitians called it the British disease, and the Dutch called it the Spanish pox, for example. Since the newly-discovered skeletons pre-date Columbus, he and his crew could not be to blame for the emergence of the disease in Europe, and Connell said it was probably just coincidence the first well-documented outbreak occurred after Columbus had returned.

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Citation: Columbus cleared of bringing syphilis to Europe (2010, October 27) retrieved 26 May 2019 from
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Oct 27, 2010
Oops. Did i say syphilis, I meant gonorhea.. Columbus brought back the Clap not syphilis... my bad -- i'll re write those papers immediately... sorry Professor Peabody

LOL :-)

Oct 27, 2010
Maybe Leif Eriksson beat Columbus to it in bringer back treasures from the New World and spread them further while looting the coasts of Brittania?

Oct 27, 2010
My understanding has always been that syphilis _originated_ in the Old World...that the spirochete responsible for the disease is equine-derived, and probably jumped species as a result of human-equine sexual contact.

I had never heard that this understanding had been turned upon its head in recent years. This is very peculiar revisionism, to say the least, and it sounds as if now it has been rebutted.

Oct 28, 2010
"probably jumped species as a result of human-equine sexual contact" yeah sure. You might want to check the police records on your biology teacher.

Oct 28, 2010
"probably jumped species as a result of human-equine sexual [...]might want to check the police records on your biology teacher.

Yeah, sure, @ilbud,
I suppose you can be forgiven for not having any further insight than "New World vs Old World" as regards the ORIGIN/etiology of T. pallidum, But you really should ask first, instead of slandering some putative instructor.
Granted, it was circa 1975 or so, but this came from a science/medical periodical -I no longer remember which- and, based upon morphological evidence, theorized this Equine origin(or intermediation) for Syphilis(T. pallidum)

http://www.channi...u/19.htm =(related article, and relevant segment:

"Syphilis - Treponema pallidum

Nonpathogenic treponemes can be found in the oral cavity, GI tract, and urogenital tract of animals - cultivable.

T. pallidum, the etiologic agent of syphilis, is morphologically indistinguishable from the nonpathogenic treponemes - not cultivated in vitro"

Oct 28, 2010
(Contd, from above)

The reason sexual contact was theorized as the mode of transmission is because Spirochetae are readily and easily killed by exposure to Oxygen(as in AIR), and therefore need an anaerobic method of introduction from the (supposed)disease reservoir to the host organism.

This is a lot of trouble to have to go to, @ilbud, to set you back on your pins, but I think -at least in this case- well worth it.

I accept your apologies in advance.

Nov 16, 2010
More likely yaws, endemic to Old World and mostly indistinguishable from syphilis.

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