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Diagnosis and Treatment: Syphilis, Page 1

Re-enactors are a rather curious lot and earthy medical topics like venereal disease seem to fascinate many of them. Having recently come across several very good Golden Age of Pyracy accounts of syphilis, I decided it was time to create a page for it. Most of this material is from the book Chirurgia Curiosa by Matthias Gottfriend Purmann. There are some additional bits from John Atkins' book, The Navy Surgeon and John Moyle's Chirurgius Marinus.

Note that the spelling and grammar have been preserved, although I have inserted some material in square brackets to make it more meaningful to modern audiences. I have also inserted a couple of paragraph breaks so as not to tax the on-line reader. Many authors could hold forth for pages in a single paragraph and that is a bit much to follow on a computer screen.

Purmann gives us several medical prescriptions for the cures of the illness as well as many of the accompanying symptoms (most involving Mercury, which is used in nearly every surgical treatise on Syphilis which I have read from the late 17th/early 18th century). I have done my best to recreate these recipes, although the Purmann book is noticeably faded and unclear in many places in the printing I own. Add to this the fact that most books give prescriptions in wildly abbreviated and inconsistent Latin and you can appreciate that it is possible that I have not gotten these exactly right. My point is that if you have recourse to one of the mercurial cures, you should really consult your pharmacist rather than rely on this web page. (Be forewarned, s/he may give you a really odd look.)

Measurements were given in grains, drams, ounces and pounds, each of which has a symbol that can't be easily reproduced, so I just replaced all the symbols with their equivalent in curly braces. The i/v/x refers to the amount of each measurement. Further information on this front is left as an exercise for the reader.


"XVII. Lues Venera.
Some say Columbus's Sailors transported the Lues to Europe, and was spread to Morocco by the Banishment of the Jews from Spain; A. D. 1492. Others derive the original from the Siege of Naples by the French, 1494, thence calling it the French, and sometimes the Neapolitan Disease, and only mean that it received its present Name there; that it became more common, or that luckily about the Time some Remedy was found better adapted to its Cure than any before known: For no doubt it reaches in Antiquity the first Ages, and antient as corrupted Nature, it being irrational, either to suppose a World drowned for their Sins, Stranger to the Vice that contracts it, or that their Wickedness any more than our deserved Exemption. No; Providence, we may safely believe, stamped an immediate Punishment on this, as on all other Intemperance and Sin, ab Origine, that the Pains and Sufferings succeeding a vicious Course of Life, might, if nothing else would, restrain us to Virtue, and be both a natural and moral Good to us." (Atkins, Navy Surgeon, p. 222)


"Venereal Contact seems of such Necessity for communicating Infection, that with me it is a very unlikely Thing for Venereal Matter ever to do it without. Those In Praise of Mercury Woodcut Woodall
"In Praise of Mercury" from the surgions mate by John Woodall
who have asserted the contrary of this, have done it in improbable Instances, saying, It is not always necessary a Woman be clapp'd to give it to a Man, but that he may take off all the virulent Matter left in the Passage by a preceding Gallant, and she remain perfectly well; or that she may give it to him by only taking the corrupted Matter from her Body in her Hand, and wetting his Privities. And others relate its highest Degeneracy, or a Pox to be contagious, by wearing the Cloaths, Lying, or Cohabitation, especially if the Infected be overspread with cutaneous Eruptions and Blotches.

These are but two Ways in this latter Case, whereby Contagion can be supposed to pass, and that is, by their throwing off a greater Quantity of noxious and virulent Effluvia, in the manner some suppose the Plague and Epidemical Distempers to infect; or else like what is related in the Philosophical Transactions concerning Contagion in the Itch, Animalculæ are bred in those Globules dispersed about the Skin, which making their Way through, shift from Place to Place, and so carry Infection, they living (says the Relation) two or three Days when from the Body. But how well these Assignata may resolve other contagious Distempers, they appear here but light in the Balance; Fact Baffles Philosophy. And if all those who have suffered this Way, are like what have fallen to my Share, there is not one could stand by any other Pretence than Coition. Whence we ought to account this Distemper a Mark of Divine Displeasure; We sin (as St. Paul says) against our own Body, and receive a present Correction, that the Sense of our own Interest might work on us, and bring us back to Temperance and Virtue." (Atkins, Navy Surgeon, p. 225-6)

"Though I have discoursed of this Disease in a Particular Treatise, yet I could not think this Work so compleat as it ought to be, without giving a full account of it in all its various Appearances, it being a Disease of which one cannot say too much, because such numbers of Persons are infected with it, and that it often sculks under other denominations, to the ruin of many Patients, that if it had been known might have been cured by Salivation. `It would be but lost time to show how or where it began, and the several Advances it has made in later times; therefore I shall proceed to acquaint the Chirurgion, with what is more necessary for him to know, viz. the Causes, Diagnosticks, Differences, and other Circumstances of this venomous and desperate Disease.

Now, though some Persons have been infected with it, only by drinking after such as have been tainted; by lying in the same Bed, or as others affirm, by the power of Imagination, yet Whoring is the principal Cause, to which an over hasty stopping a Gonorrhæa does not a little contribute; for it hurles up the Disease in the Body, instead of expelling the Contagion. The Signs of its Approach and increase, are sometimes an itch, running and spreading Tetters and Blotches in several parts, the Scurvy, a sore Throat, perhaps Ulcerated; Ulcers and Nodes upon the Head, breakings out in the Face, and intolerable Itching and Heat in the Privities, which in time break out into filthy Ulcers.

This Disease as I have said already, proceeds from Immoderation in Venery and Copulation, with infected and unclean Persons. First, this Venom seizes on the Yard, and insinuates its Poison into the dilated Port, then breaks out into a Gonorrhea, attended with violent heat and pain in making water, and by degrees raises a Swelling, an Inflammation, Rawness, Blisters and Ulcers in the Privities, which if neglected, or the Patient falls into unskilful hands, the Juices are infected, the Blood, Lymphs and Seccum Nutritius become Acid and Acrid, and growing thick, not only obstructs the Glands, Muscles and tender parts, but also corrupts the Nerves, Bones and Ligaments. I say this Venom consists of Acid and Acrid particles, which first possess the Glands of the Privities in Men and Women, and after Coation when the Pores are closed, intermixes with the Sanative Juices thereabouts, and in a few days, raises a Fermentation that Produces a Gohorrhæa. But if this Venom is not powerful enough to put the circulating Juices to a stand, and raise a Fermentation to soon, then it spreads further into the neighbouring parts, yea, through the whole Body, causing many ill Accidents, and at length a perfect Pox. " (Purmann, pages 193-4)

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