It’s the side of the Christopher Columbus story that you won’t find in grade school history books, and it’s a theory that continues to raise the ire of some historians.
Specifically, some researchers believe that Columbus brought syphilis to Europe, along with the cocoa, tobacco, spices and other booty he hauled back from the Americas. At the forefront of this hypothesis is Kristin Harper, a Health and Society Scholar at — somewhat ironically — Columbia University in New York.
The analysis adds to previous work done on the topic by Harper and her colleagues at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. The difference is that this time Harper and co-authors Molly K. Zuckerman and George Armelagos said they reviewed all 54 published reports of diseases similar to syphilis detected in the Old World in the years before Columbus came back from the New World.
What they claim to have found is that none of these accounts provide evidence that the cases documented were both truly syphilis and occurred before Columbus’ return to Europe. By eliminating these cases, the research say their work strengthens the argument for the Columbian theory of syphilis — in short, that the disease hitched a ride back on one of Columbus’ vessels.
The theory that Columbus’ crew brought this bacterium home with them to Europe is not at all new; it’s an idea that can be seen in Spanish accounts from the 16th century. But it’s a theory that has angered some — and it is also not the only theory out there for how the disease arose in Europe.
Notably, some researchers believe evidence shows the disease may have existed in Europe long before Columbus set out across the sea to the New World, but that it was misdiagnosed at the time as leprosy. Others say it may have existed in one form or another in the Old World and simply spread more rampantly during Columbus’ time because of relatively rapid changes in hygiene and urbanization in Europe. Opponents of the Columbian hypothesis cite accounts of a similar disease that predate Columbus by centuries, and many researchers also point to a purported case of the illness in a 13th-century Augustinian friary in England.
While those embroiled in the debate over the origins of syphilis in the Old World may spar over these questions, non-experts may ask the question of how something that could have happened hundreds of years ago could matter today. In response, Harper said the underlying principles of the disease’s spread may be more relevant to today’s illnesses than one might guess.
“Even though it has been more than 500 years since Columbus returned from the New World, I think the story of how syphilis originated and spread may reveal some important lessons,” Harper told ABCNews.com. “Syphilis was one of the first examples of a truly global epidemic, and I think its history demonstrates how effectively a novel pathogen can spread around the world, even without the benefit of modern travel, and also how hard it is to predict where and when a novel new infection may arise and permanently take hold in a population.”