Sunday, August 19, 2012


I'm through about 25% of Deborah Hayden's book, POX: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis. Thus far, the work is riveting. Competing theories on the biological evolution and epidemiology of syphilis are weaved throughout a cogent narrative, flavored with notable excerpts from historical records. Apart from the Great Mortality, I can't think of another disease which was so widely personified by poetic mythos and dark imagination as was syphilis. Consider this lurid description by 19th Century French poet Théophile Gautier:

"There is a splendid American pox here, as pure as at the time of Francis I. The entire French army has been laid up with it; boils are exploding in groins like shells, and purulent jets of clap vie with the fountains in the Piazza Navona . . . tibias are exfoliating in extoses like ancient columns of greenery in a Roman ruin . . . lieutenants walking in the streets look like leopards, they are so dotted and speckled with roseola, freckles, coffee-colored marks, warty excrescences, horny and cryptogamic verruccae and other secondary and tertiary manifestations which appear here after a fortnight." [1]

1. Hayden, Deborah. Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis. Basic Books, New York: 2003. Quoting Claude Quétel: History of Syphilis (1990).


Deb said...

Thanks for the comment! Glad you are enjoying POX.

--Deb Hayden

JP said...

You're most welcome! I've already suggested the book to a few friends who are interested in subjects like public health and infectious disease, and I'll likely post more on POX when I've finished reading it in its entirety.