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Sex and syphilis

The Italians called it ‘the French disease’ and the French called it ‘the Neapolitan disease’. The Russians knew it as ‘the Polish disease’ and the Poles called it the ‘German disease’. To the people of Flanders and North Africa it was ‘the Spanish disease’, while to the Spanish it was known as ‘las bubas’. The British called it ‘the pox’, but you will know it as syphilis. Today a diagnosis of syphilis will require little more than a course of antibiotics and a few awkward phone calls, but it wasn’t always the case. As strains of sexually transmitted diseases are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, it’s worth remembering the centuries of misery that syphilis unleashed and the desperate remedies our ancestors clung to before reliable treatment was available.

Words by Dr Kate Lister

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Photograph of Dr Kate Lister

Dr Kate Lister


Dr Kate Lister is a lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, where she researches the history of sexuality and curates Whores of Yore, a project exploring the history of sexuality.