Cover image for Pox : genius, madness, and the mysteries of syphilis
Pox : genius, madness, and the mysteries of syphilis
Hayden, Deborah.
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Publication Information:
New York : Basic Books, [2003]

Physical Description:
xx, 379 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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RC201.47 .H39 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Was Beethoven experiencing syphilitic euphoria when he composed "Ode to Joy"? Did van Gogh paint "Crows Over the Wheatfield" in a fit of diseased madness right before he shot himself? Was syphilis a stowaway on Columbus's return voyage to Europe? The answers to these provocative questions are likely "yes," claims Deborah Hayden in this riveting investigation of the effects of the "Pox" on the lives and works of world figures from the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries. Writing with remarkable insight and narrative flair, Hayden argues that biographers and historians have vastly underestimated the influence of what Thomas Mann called "this exhilarating yet wasting disease." Shrouded in secrecy, syphilis was accompanied by wild euphoria and suicidal depression, megalomania and paranoia, profoundly affecting sufferers' worldview, their sexual behavior and personality, and, of course, their art. Deeply informed and courageously argued, Pox has already been heralded as a major contribution to our understanding of genius, madness, and creativity.

Author Notes

Deborah Hayden is an independent scholar living in San Anselmo, California. She has lectured on syphilis at the University of California San Francisco Department of Psychiatry and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She owns a direct marketing firm that does fundraising for non-profit organizations

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

More than 500 years after the great European-American encounter, scholars still debate whether syphilis was America's thank-you to Europe, especially for Christopher Columbus. Hayden presents an exhaustively researched case for syphilis taking its maiden voyage to Europe "aboard" Columbus' crew. Thus launched, pox, as it was called, so took Europe by storm that by the nineteenth century, according to some estimates, more than 15 percent of European men were infected. Of the wide variety of "cures," many, including mercury, were arguably worse than the disease. Until penicillin in the late 1940s, none actually cured it. After a tour through syphilis' grisly history, Hayden presents case studies of various nineteenth-and twentieth-century luminaries rumored to have been syphilitic. The well-documented accounts allow readers to draw their own conclusions about men as diverse as Beethoven, Flaubert, Lincoln, and Hitler. There aren't many books about syphilis, and aside from those about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, few are more interesting. An if-you-read-one-book-about kind of book. --Donna Chavez

Publisher's Weekly Review

Were Abraham and Mary Lincoln's well-known health problems symptoms of syphilis? Was Adolf Hitler's final descent into madness due to an early syphilitic infection acquired from a prostitute? Did James Joyce make hidden allusions to his own infection in works like Ulysses? According to Hayden, a California-based scholar and marketing executive, scholars and medical professionals have too often overlooked the evidence of "pox," or syphilis-often called the "Great Imitator" because its symptoms mimic those of many other diseases-in the biographies of historical figures. Few would argue that some of Hayden's subjects, like Flaubert and Karen Blixen (subject of the movie Out of Africa), suffered from the disease. Her arguments for others, like the Lincolns and Beethoven, are sure to provoke debate. Hayden pulls together fascinating medical histories for figures like President Lincoln and Hitler, but with Mary Lincoln in particular her background documentation seems spotty. She overlooks Mary's vigorous, and very sane, campaign to be released from the mental institution that her son Robert had her committed to. Hayden suffers from an unfortunate tendency to romanticize the final stages of syphilis: she claims repeatedly that artists attain some sort of mystical breakthrough in their art when they're on the verge of paralytic collapse, an assertion straight out of Thomas Mann and other early 20th-century writers. The sprawling chapter on Hitler is the climax of the book but suffers from poor organization and loose writing. Readers will be divided on whether or not they are convinced by Hayden's arguments, but with the reemergence of syphilis in many urban populations, the subject is sure to attract attention. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Independent scholar Hayden has written a fascinating account of the role that syphilis may have played in the lives of noted historical Western figures from Columbus to Hitler. Over the course of five centuries, the author shows how their lives coincided, respectively, with the disease's epidemic rise in Europe and the discovery of penicillin, which successfully treated it. She also profiles composers such as Beethoven and Schubert; writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Wilde, Joyce, and Karen Blixen; and other luminaries from van Gogh to Nietzsche. For each individual, she outlines the evidence of syphilis and its effects, as well as noting how previous biographers have dealt with-or missed-this evidence. Hayden's book is well documented and includes an important chapter called "The Fragile Art of Retrospective Diagnosis." This technique is provocative-and necessary; as Hayden notes, over the centuries people were silent about syphilis or spoke or wrote about it only in code. Despite the scholarly apparatus, this title is recommended for most academic and public libraries. Any book combining genius, madness, sex, and disease is bound to find an audience.-A.J. Wright, Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham Lib. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

While studying Nietzsche's syphilis, Hayden discovered other 19th-century syphilitic authors and artists. Syphilis was widely prevalent then, yet mentioning the disease was taboo, so Hayden wondered "how much ... syphilis [was] an unacknowledged subtext in nineteenth-century biography?" Hayden compared the medical histories of Columbus, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Hitler, Oscar Wilde, Isak Dinesen, James Joyce, Nietzsche, Beethoven, Flaubert, Maupassant, Schumann, Schubert, and van Gogh against her list of the "ten clues to secret syphilis," and concluded that all of them were syphilitic. (Probably so, but without serological evidence, retrospective diagnoses are impossible.) The author implies that what is new to her is new to all, but many readers will be neither surprised nor convinced by her argument. The real "unacknowledged subtext" is not syphilis but her subtitle: "Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis." Like tuberculosis, syphilis had a social construction that associated the disease with genius or high artistic sensibility, and Hayden also wondered what role syphilis played in creativity. These artists created apart from or even in spite of illness. Syphilis may have affected the art, but it did not create the artist. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers; lower-division undergraduates. T. P. Gariepy Stonehill College

Table of Contents

Cactus Flower: A Fantasyp. xi
Introductionp. xiii
Acknowledgmentsp. xix
Part I The Disease
1 Christopher Columbus: The First European Syphilitic?p. 3
2 The Revenge of the Americasp. 12
3 A Brief History of the Spirochetep. 22
4 Shedding Light on the Poison of the Darknessp. 28
5 From Poisonous Cures to Wonder Drug (Almost)p. 43
6 The Physician's Viewpointp. 51
7 Detective Zeal: The Fragile Art of Retrospective Diagnosisp. 60
Part II The Nineteenth Century
8 Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827p. 71
9 Franz Schubert, 1797-1828p. 89
10 Robert Schumann, 1810-1856p. 97
11 Charles Baudelaire, 1821-1867p. 112
12 Mary Todd, 1818-1882, and Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865p. 120
13 Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1880p. 133
14 Guy de Maupassant, 1850-1893p. 142
15 Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890p. 152
16 Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900p. 172
17 Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900p. 200
Part III The Twentieth Century
18 Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), 1885-1962p. 229
19 James Joyce, 1882-1941p. 239
20 Adolf Hitler, 1889-1945p. 251
Part IV Pox Gallery
21 A Gallery of Pox: The Myth of Syphilisp. 305
Epiloguep. 317
Appendix A Ten Clues to Secret Syphilisp. 319
Appendix B Stokes's Case Studyp. 321
Notesp. 323
Bibliographyp. 353
Indexp. 367