Columbus cleared of bringing syphilis to Europe

October 27, 2010 by Lin Edwards, report

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.

Explore further: Syphilis making a comeback

Related Stories

Syphilis making a comeback

May 9, 2007

Three years after Virginia public health officials thought syphilis was almost eradicated, the disease has surged, with the number of cases doubling.

Understanding the Bacterium that Causes Syphilis

April 15, 2010

( -- An article published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences goes a long way toward improving understanding of the bacterium that causes syphilis and may lead to novel therapeutic ...

Unusual 17th-century Dutch horse burial site found

June 30, 2010

(AP) -- Archeologists have uncovered a mass grave with the complete skeletons of 51 horses buried side-by-side, probably the long-forgotten equine victims of a 17th century battle over a strategic Dutch river.

Columbus DNA evidence inconclusive

October 12, 2006

The only established present-day heir to Christopher Columbus says the navigator and admiral was born in the northern Italian port city of Genoa.

Recommended for you


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) 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 :-)
1 / 5 (1) 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?
1 / 5 (1) 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.
1 / 5 (1) 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.
3 / 5 (2) 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"

3 / 5 (2) 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.
not rated yet Nov 16, 2010
More likely yaws, endemic to Old World and mostly indistinguishable from syphilis.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.