CPP Curiosities: Pick Your Poison: Historic Syphilis Treatments

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Greetings, fellow historico-medico aficionados and welcome to the triumphant return of CPP Curiosities, our semi-regular segment devoted to the medically weird. Kevin here to give you another tale of mildly-interesting medical miscellany. Past installments examined such topics as the iron lung, the preserved corpse of Vladimir Lenin, and that time President Grover Cleveland had a tumor removed during a secret surgery performed on a yacht.

Today’s installment is inspired by a presentation I recently delivered to visitors to the Mütter Museum on the subject of syphilis. Visitors that day got to see books related to the disease from our Historical Medical Library, including Corky the Killer, and handle reproductions of objects in our robust collection while learning about the history of the disease.

Youth Program Coordinator Kevin Impellizeri stands behind a table of specimens and books related to syphilis for a lesson at the Mütter Museum

Syphilis has been around for a long time. Today, it is treated through antibiotics; however, before the popularization of antibiotics in the 1940s, physicians attempted a wide variety of treatments, many of which were just as bad, if not worse, than the disease itself.

Let’s start by with a brief introduction to syphilis. Syphilis aka “the French Disease” aka “the Polish Disease” aka “the German Disease” aka “the Spanish Disease” aka “the Christian Disease”  is caused by the treponema pallidum bacteria and is spread through skin-to-skin contact with syphilitic lesions, usually during sexual contact. There are a few conflicting theories of where its specific origins lie, although there appears to be some consensus that it evolved as a strain of one of several other bone/skin conditions such as yaws or pinta. The earliest outbreak that is attributed to syphilis in Europe took place in Naples in 1494/1495, and there are some who argue the first strains of the disease came to the Continent aboard Christopher Columbus’ return trip from the New World in 1493.

The disease generally follows a four-stage pattern. The first, aptly named primary syphilis, is characterized by the appearance of a large sore known as a chancre at the site of infection. Aside from being unsightly, patients with primary syphilis don’t feel any discomfort and the chancre will go away on its own after about three to six weeks. During the second stage, again aptly named secondary syphilis, the infected patient will generally have a rash or skin lesions and can also exhibit symptoms similar to the flu such as fever, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, muscle aches, and fatigue. Secondary syphilis has also been known to cause hair loss. As with its chancrous predecessor, these symptoms will go away on their own after a few weeks after which the disease enters its latent phase (which, you guessed it, is called latent syphilis) where a patient exhibits no outward symptoms. Syphilis can lie dormant in a person’s system for up to thirty years!

When syphilis reawakens after its latent stage is when the real health problems begin. During the syphilis’ final form, known as tertiary syphilis, the disease beings to attack the body, particularly the skin and skeleton. Syphilis causes bone and skin to deteriorate, leaving disfiguring lesions on the patient’s face. Tertiary syphilis can also spread to other organ systems, such as the eyes (ocular syphilis) or brain (neurosyphilis).

Wax model of a syphilitic face

Wax model of a syphilitic face

Historic treatments were often just as bad, if not worse, for a syphilitic patient than the disease itself. Mercury was the most popular treatment for syphilis before the twentieth century; mercury treatments gave birth to a common phrase associated with the disease: “A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.” According to the World Health Organization, prolonged exposure to mercury can lead to respiratory, gastrointestinal, and neurological damage. In 1909, chemist Paul Ehlich developed an alternative to mercury therapy: Compound 606 aka Salvarsan. Named because it was the 606th trial chemical, Salvarsan is generally acknowledged as the first modern chemotherapy treatment, and Elrich went on to become the co-winner of the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. While considered effective in mitigating the early symptoms of syphilis, Salvarsan introduced another potentially deadly treatment: it was chock full of arsenic. According to the WHO, short term exposure to arsenic can cause vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, numbness, and (depending on the level of exposure) death. Long-term exposure has been linked to skin, lung, and bladder cancers (long-time readers will recall arsenic was a suspected killer of President Zachary Taylor, although this was later disproven following an autopsy). Elrich eventually developed a replacement for Salvarsan, the creatively-named Neosalvarsan aka Compound 914, which contained slightly less arsenic; Neosalvarsan was the predominant treatment until the 1940s.

Skull with Syphilitic Necrotic

Skull with Syphilitic Necrosis, Mütter Museum, 1161.07

During the 1920s, Austrian psychiatrist Julius Wagner-Juaregg developed a novel approach to treating syphilis: infecting people with malaria. Malariotherapy is a branch of treatments that involves battling infection by inducing a high body temperature, a treatment generally known as pyrotherapy or fever therapy. Malaria is a potentially-useful pyrotherapy tool as it causes a high fever (in addition to chills, sweating, and body aches) and is curable with quinine. Wagner-Juaregg injected late-stage syphilitic patients with malaria and observed the parasite-induced fever’s efficacy in treating neurosyphilis. For his efforts, Wagner-Juaregg earned the 1927 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. Despite sounding like something a mad scientist might suggest, malariotherapy became a fairly common treatment for syphilis well through the 1950s. However, modern scientists have been divided as to its efficacy, citing in part Wagner-Juaregg’s ethically-questionable use of institutionalized patients. Incidentally, in more recent years, malariotherapy has been proposed as a treatment for HIV (see here and here) and (in at least one ill-advised instance of self-administered malariotherapy) Lyme Disease.

Fortunately, syphilis is easily treatable today with penicillin, which, although penicillin allergies are not uncommon, does not cause the severe long-term health repercussions of its heavy-metal predecessors. Also, using protection, such as condoms, during sexual intercourse can also prevent the spread of syphilis.



CPP Curiosities: The Iron Lung

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Greetings, patient historico-medico aficionados. After a brief hiatus, your monthly dose of the medically weird is back again. In keeping with our transition from CEPI to the Center for Education, CEPI Curiosities is also receiving a new moniker: CPP (as in College of Physicians of Philadelphia) Curiosities. Make no mistake, however, despite the new name we are sticking to our tried-and-true formula of medical history stories to surprise you or at the very least make you look at the world of medicine just a bit differently.

This time around we are tackling the strange and fascinating history of the negative pressure ventilator, more commonly known as the “iron lung.”

Emerson Iron Lung at the Mütter Museum

Emerson Iron Lung at the Mütter Museum

“Iron Lung” is a colloquial term for a variety of artificial respiration machines that encapsulate all or part of a patient’s body. They help a person breathe through a method called negative pressure ventilation where the air pressure surrounding the patient’s body is reduced, forcing their lungs to expand and take in air; the pressure around the patient is then increased, causing them to exhale. For a time, iron lungs were a common treatment during the twentieth century for conditions where a patient could not sufficiently breathe unassisted.

However, they are most commonly associated with one particular disease: polio. Also known as infantile paralysis or poliomyelitis, polio is caused by the poliovirus, a contagious virus most commonly spread through infected feces that comes into contact with a patient’s mouth. The majority of people exposed to the poliovirus exhibit no symptoms; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four people infected with the poliovirus will have relatively mild symptoms, including sore throat, nausea, fatigue, headaches, and stomach pain, and these symptoms generally go away after a few days (this is known as “abortive polio”). However, a small percentage of people exposed to the poliovirus develop temporary or permanent neurological symptoms, ranging from light sensitivity and stiffness to muscle spasms to partial or total paralysis.

Image of a patient's legs with chronic anterior poliomyelitis, Source: Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Image of a patient’s legs with chronic anterior poliomyelitis, Source: Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

According to our sister page, History of Vaccines, the earliest reported polio outbreak in the United States took place in 1894. The nation’s most severe outbreak occurred in the 1930s-1950s. The development of polio vaccines and public health initiatives to inoculate the public significantly reduced the number of polio cases. Thanks to vaccines, polio has been largely eradicated in the developed world (it was eliminated in the US in 1979). However, periodic outbreaks occur in areas with limited or inadequate medical resources. Between 2013 and 2015, a polio epidemic spread through Syria and into neighboring Iraq followed by a second outbreak in Syria in June 2017 as well as another in the Congo around the same time.

Conceptually, negative pressure ventilation dates back to the late 1700s, and the earliest negative pressure devices emerged in the mid 1800s. In 1864, Alfred F. Jones of Lexington, KY, filed the first patent for a negative pressure respirator. His device, which he dubbed a “Restorator,” required the patient to sit upright in a small chamber with only their head exposed, covered in a specialized hood to maintain an air seal. Air circulated through the chamber through a hand pump. However, it’s unclear if Jones ever developed a model for mass production. In 1876, a French physician named Eugene Woillez developed what is considered the first functional negative pressure ventilator. Woillez’s “Spirophone” allowed for a patient to lie flat on their back, encasing them up to their neck in a sealed enclosure. Air was pumped into the Spirophone through the use of hand-operated bellows.

Image of Alfred Jones' "Restorator" from his patent application US Patent No: US44198

Image of Alfred Jones’ “Restorator” from his patent application US Patent No: US44198

However, the negative pressure ventilator did not receive wide usage or exposure until the early 20th century. In 1928, a pair of Harvard University professors–Drs. Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw–developed an automated negative pressure ventilator. Similar to the Spirophone, a patient lay flat on a movable table with all but their head and neck encased within the device. The Drinker respirator generated negative pressure via a motor that pumped a bellows (this silent film demonstrates it in action). They initially tested the device by conducting preliminary experiments on a cat before moving into to human testing on an eight-year-old girl with respiratory paralysis from polio. According to Drinker’s later accounts the girl’s breathing significantly improved after being encased in the Drinker respirator for a short period of time, and their “iron lung” quickly gained wide circulation as a treatment for polio-induced respiratory failure (Louis A. Shaw, “Cutaneous Respiration of the Cat,” American Journal of Physiology. 85 (1928): 158-167; Philip Drinker and Charles F. McKhann, III. The Use of a New Apparatus for the Prolonged Administration of Artificial Respiration: I. A Fatal Case of Poliomyelitis. JAMA. 92.20 (1929): 1658-166). In 1931, a Boston machinist named John Haven Emerson devised improvements for the Drinker and Shaw design; reportedly, Emerson approached Drinker with his ideas but found a tepid response, prompting him to design and sell it on his own. The Emerson Iron Lung proved lighter, more efficient, and significantly cheaper to produce than the Drinker model and became a staple in polio treatment wards across the country (Drinker also unsuccessfully attempted to sue Emerson for patent infringement). The College of Physicians has an Emerson Iron Lung among its vast collection; however, it is not currently on display.

During the polio outbreaks of the 1930s-1950s, if paralysis impeded a person’s ability to breathe (respiratory paralysis), they would be placed into an iron lung until such time as they could breathe on their own, usually after 1-2 weeks of treatment. However, in cases of extreme paralysis, patients may periodically be encased in one over the course of months or years. For those curious about what it is like to be in an iron lung, in 2010, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine published an account from Marshall Barr, a patient who regularly used an iron lung for fifteen years.

Robert Hicks, Mütter Museum Director Robert Hicks in an iron lung for an episode of the YouTube series Grey Matter

Robert Hicks, Mütter Museum Director Robert Hicks in an iron lung for an episode of the YouTube series Grey Matter

With the rise in positive pressure ventilation devices (the kind used in modern ventilators), negative pressure respirators like the iron lung generally fell out of favor. However, there are reportedly a small handful of patients who still utilize an iron lung to help them breathe.

Until next time, catch you on the strange side!