by Deborah Hayden (Basic Books)
(This column first appeared in the May 1, 2003 issue of ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
Sexually transmitted disease is not an easy subject -- especially by those afflicted, but by the medical community and by an author as well. Deborah Hayden has done a quite remarkable job in communicating information about this strange ailment in her Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis. This disease remains widespread but, at least in its initial stages, it is controllable by penicillin. However, that is not Hayden's concern: hers is an historical account.
She begins her story by making a strong case for a New World payback. In return for Europeans delivering "measles, tetanus, typhus, typhoid, diphtheria, influenza, pneumonia, whooping cough, dysentery, and smallpox" to the Americas, Columbus (quite possibly personally) brought back syphilis and the disease spread rapidly through the rest of the world, carried most often by invading armies.
Individuals with venereal disease are difficult to treat. They are usually embarrassed and often lie about their symptoms. And in the case of syphilis even when they are forthcoming, the disease has a reputation as the Great Imitator, its symptoms mirroring a wide range of other afflictions. Upton Sinclair's novel Damaged Goods exposes some of the ethical problems doctors face in treating the disease while keeping their patients' secrets.
The core of Hayden's book is her litany of famous people who, she claims with strong evidence, suffered from the disease. She names famous authors, artists, musicians and political leaders, including even a United States president and his wife. Thoroughly researched, hers are compelling cases.‹gerry rising