The Great Pox, commonly known as the clap, is given a clinical but—how could it be otherwise?—morbidly fascinating historical profile by independent scholar Hayden, who proceeds to do some medical detective work in identifying famous people who may have carried the spirochete to their graves.
The nasty little parasite entered the history books, Hayden conjectures (with evidence), when Columbus returned from the New World and launched the European syphilis epidemic of 1493. (The lepers thought the syphilitics smelled so bad they wouldn’t have them in their neighborhoods.) Left untreated, as it essentially was until penicillin, syphilis is a chronic, inflammatory, relapsing disease that goes into hiding throughout the body—brain, eyes, temporal arteries—after the initial sores disappear. It then reasserts itself by delivering severe headaches and gastrointestinal pains, blindness and deafness, paralysis, and insanity, yet sometimes also ecstasy and fierce creativity. Hayden traces attempts to counteract the disease—which, since methods included dousing with mercury, arsenic, and bismuth, were equally terrible (and ineffective)—in a voice both serious and wonderfully understated: one of the “warning signs” of tertiary syphilis, she explains, is the sensation of being serenaded by angels. After the cultural and medical groundwork has been laid, Hayden asks “delicate questions” about a number of historical figures. She examines the possibility that Beethoven and van Gogh were victims—possible cases that are hotly contested. It would be a miracle if Flaubert didn't have syphilis, and in Oscar Wilde’s case, he said and did so many bizarre things that’s it’s hard to judge. Hayden presents the facts and lets the readers decide whether Nietzsche, Baronness Blixen, Schubert, Baudelaire, and Hitler may have been candidates.
Pox is free of judgment, but the reader can’t help but feel that safe sex never seemed a better idea. (Illustrations)