New diseases and new cures: syphilis and guaiacum

New diseases and new cures: syphilis and guaiacum

On the wall which divides the two halves of this image, a painting discretely reminds the viewer of the cause of the disease. As a group of men and women dine together in intimate physical proximity, one couple rises from the table and makes their way to a bed invitingly throw open. Yet the man glances furtively back over his shoulder at the viewer with a look more of warning than of encouragement.

This images looms over the bed-ridden figure to the left of the wall, his eyes wide with horror as he realises the consequence of his earlier promiscuity. He sips a potion, evidently poured from the flask held by the young man who illuminates the scene with his candle: the mortar and pestle hanging from the wall may indicate that this is an apothecary. The elegantly dressed, bearded man in the foreground with the doctoral cap is presumably the physician, his prescription on the table to his right, an herb of some kind in his left hand.

The contact of Europe with America touched off one of the great biological exchanges of human history. Countless diseases were transferred from the Old World to the denizens of the New, who suffered demographic catastrophe since they had acquired little immunity to them. But only one deadly disease appears to have passed from the New World to the Old: syphilis, and even in this case the evidence is inconclusive.

It was commonly supposed that Nature provides a cure in the same region in which she produces a disease. Since the Spanish had encountered syphilis in the New World, they therefore looked to the Americas to cure it. They first encountered guaiacum wood upon conquering San Domingo (Hispaniola) very early in the sixteenth century. The bark and sap of this extremely hard wood has many medical properties: it is anti-inflammatory, laxative, stimulatory, diaphoretic (i.e. induces sweating), and has been used to treat arthritis, gout, and rheumatism. Even today it is used in mainstream medicine in the 'guaiac test' for occult bleeding of the large intestine, which is often a sign of colorectal cancer. Small wonder, then, that it was known as lignum vitae ('the wood of life'), and its commercial value was further inflated by the belief that it could cure syphilis.

The scene to the right of the dividing wall is ambiguous. The china displayed on the far wall suggests the interior of a wealthy household, capable of affording this expensive medicine; but in this context the man seated on the ground would be completely out of place. This right half of the image therefore seems to depict three different stages in the preparation of this medicine in three different locations. The man is seated outside or in a woodshed, possibly in the New World, gathering the bark and gum from which the medicine was made. The woman in the middle-ground is working, presumably in a pharmacy, to weigh in a scale the precious ingredients which will then be pressed into the flat loaves on the table before her. The woman in the background stokes a fire with bellows to boil the guiacum into the potable form being sipped by the bedridden man.

Text: Howard Hotson  (May 2019)