Ben Pfeiffer as Oswald and Linda Cropper as Mrs Alving in Ghosts

From the Reading Room | Oswald's unmentionable disease

The ‘French pox’, the ‘disease of Naples’, the ‘Portuguese plague’ – what is Oswald Alving suffering, and where did it come from? Paul Galloway investigates.

A bacterium like a pig’s tail, Treponema pallidum (subspecies pallidum) is as simple as a living thing can be. The slightest chain of DNA set into a corkscrew of membrane, it can’t do much more than reproduce and move. It needs a host to survive, specifically humans.

To the New World, Christopher Columbus in 1492 brought the Christian God, the conquering sword and Old World germs, all deadly to the native inhabitants, though the last was by far the deadliest. In an unequal exchange of miseries, the New World passed on to Columbus’s crew certain spirochete bacteria.

The French army under Charles VIII were routed by the Venetians at the Battle of Fornovo in 1495. Examining the captured mercenaries, the Venetian doctors noted a new and frightening disease. The sufferers were covered head to foot in small grain-like pustules. Over weeks, new symptoms emerged: eruptions of sores and ulcers that ate up the flesh and an intense writhing agony within the bones; men went blind, lost their ears, noses, hands, feet and genitals. Most sufferers soon died. Since it usually began with a single genital sore, the Venetian doctors correctly guessed it was a sexual contagion. In the following weeks, the disbanded soldiers returned to their home countries – France, Flanders, Switzerland, Germany, Portugal, Italy and Spain.

Everyone wished the new disease on their worst enemy. The Italians called it ‘the French pox’ and the French, ‘the disease of Naples’; it was ‘the Spanish disease’ in Holland, ‘the Polish disease’ in Russia, ‘the Christian disease’ in the Ottoman Empire, ‘the Portuguese plague’ in India and ‘the Canton sickness’ to the Japanese. Captain Cook visiting Tahiti to view the transit of Venus in 1770 took offence at being told of ‘Apa no Britannia’ – ‘the British disease’; he thought the French were the more likely source.

Either the Europeans quickly developed resistance or the bacteria mutated into a less virulent strain. By the 1540s, a young Veronese physician, Girolamo Frascatoro, could note that ‘although this pestilential disease is at present still active, it is no longer the same as it was at first.’ Few sufferers died quickly from it; it became a lingering condition with three distinct stages spread over many years. Frascatoro would go on to write Syphilis sive morbus galicus (Syphilisor the French disease), a medical treatise in the form of a poem about a young Greek shepherd named Syphilis whose punishment for insulting Apollo was a new and disgusting affliction.

Hippocrates taught that desperate diseases needed desperate remedies. The application of mercury as ointment, pill or vapour was used against syphilis for centuries without much effect, except to add the appalling symptoms of mercury poisoning to those of the original disease. Milder remedies came from Turkey (opium) and the New World (guaiacum bark and sarsaparilla), but there was no truly effective treatment until the advent of the arsenic-based drug Salvarsan in 1910. Penicillin was so effective against the disease in the fifties there were hopes that it would soon be wiped out.

From the first, syphilis had a moral component. It seemed a punishment from God upon the sinner and its visible symptoms were the means by which the sinner could be identified – a mark of Cain. Being no respecter of class or breeding, the bacterium could infiltrate the blood of the best families and bring shame to all. In the nineteenth century, as the growing middle class became increasingly obsessed with propriety and appearances, syphilis became so feared as to become unmentionable. It was not mentioned in Ibsen’s Ghosts, but everyone who heard the evasive allusions in the dialogue recognised the terrible subject.

Ibsen’s version in Ghosts is not the actual disease, but a disease created out of common bourgeois fears and misconceptions. In the play it is passed directly from father to son in accordance to the biblical curse: ‘The sins of the fathers shall be visited on the sons.’ The mother, Mrs Alving, seems untouched, whereas the only way for the real disease to get from father to son would be through her infected womb. Nor has the son Oswald suffered either of the initial stages of the disease, which he should have passed through in childhood. And, if Oswald’s tertiary neurological symptoms are just appearing at the age of thirty, then onset has been unaccountably delayed by more than a decade. If Ibsen knew well that his description of syphilis was inaccurate, he also knew better that an apt metaphor can be more persuasive than the facts.

Published on 30 May 2014