Some strangely beautiful black and white photographs of 19th century syphilis patients from the Burns Archive and the Dittrich Medical History Centre (additional colour photographs by OG Mason, from George Henry Fox’s Photographic Illustrations of Cutaneous Syphilis (1881), some distressing, can be viewed here and here).
1,984 Irish people are recorded as dying from syphilis between 1899 and 1916 but this figure is probably significantly underreported. Out of the 1,984, 69% were child victims of congenital syphilis transmitted from mother to child in utero. Those children who survived, like the artist Gerard de Lairesse, painted by Rembrandt, below, were often marked for life.
The little girl in the picture by Pieter de Hooch below (click here and click again on her face for a close-up) was most likely a similar sufferer. Her ugliness has been blamed for reducing the price of the painting; I think it not only moves the heart, but makes the work more interesting.
Syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. Before antibiotics, there was no effective treatment. The path of the disease, in adults, was as follows:- an initial sore (primary syphilis), followed by a rash and fever (secondary syphilis). After that, it could remain latent for years, maybe even decades, before entering a tertiary period of skin ulcers (gummatous syphilis, often involving loss of the nose, as shown in the print of Sir William Davenant below), neurosyphilis (affecting the brain and causing madness) or cardiovascular syphilis.
In children, congenital syphilis could manifest itself as any of the above, along with blindness, saddle nose deformation, and notched teeth known as Hutchinson’s incisors.
Because of its ability to mimic so many other conditions, syphilis can be difficult to diagnose retrospectively. However many 19th century artists and writers, including Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec, de Maupassant, Baudelaire, Nietzche, Manet, Flaubert, Gauguin and the Van Goghs, are thought to have suffered from the disease known as ‘The Great Pretender’.
Untreated tertiary neurosyphilis kept the County Asylums going until the 1950s or so. If you have a relative whose death certificate reads ‘General Paralysis of the Insane’ or ‘Locomotor Ataxia’, it’s quite likely that they died of syphilis. Sorry.