Columbus' Dirty Little Secret

Dennis Faas's picture

Little bit worried about that one-night stand last weekend? Don't thank your partner -- he or she are probably never going to call you again, anyhow -- but instead think on one of America's most celebrated explorers. In a surprising and fascinating new study, researchers have discovered that Christopher Columbus or one of his men likely introduced syphilis to Europe.

Unlike today, syphilis was not just a common and annoying ailment during the fifteenth century. When it reached Europe during the twilight of the 1400s, it spread quickly amongst randy Europeans, eventually killing thousands.

What does this have to do with Columbus?

According to Emory University scholar Kristin Harper, it is likely that Columbus and his crew became infected with 'yaws', an ancient skin, bone, and joint infection in humans. Yaws was not venereal, but when it adapted to the cold and dry climate of Europe upon Columbus' return, it mutated into the germ that directly causes modern syphilis. Once it had grown to its nasty adult form, syphilis ravaged Europe before inevitably returning to America.

Although all of this sounds rather outlandish, Harper feverishly defends her study. By combining genetic analyses with "extensive documentary evidence," Harper believes "the Columbus hypothesis for syphilis' origin gains new strength." (Source:

Up until now, no one has been able to pinpoint the origin of syphilis. The closest source is still generally Europe circa 1495, three years after Columbus reached America. Some experts maintain that the disease probably began in Europe, and was then transferred to America.

Until the 1950s and the introduction of penicillin, syphilis remained a killer. Although not as dangerous as it once was, the disease still infected over 35,000 Americans in 2006. (Source:

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