Child ‘treated’ for syphilis found in plague grave in Sardinia

(ORDO NEWS) — A small patient of late Renaissance Italian doctors may have suffered from a venereal disease but died during an outbreak of bubonic plague.

If not for the epidemic, he would most likely have received a lethal dose of an “antibacterial” agent.

In the courtyard of a former Jesuit college in the city of Alghero (northwest coast of Sardinia, Italy), archaeologists recently discovered a cemetery.

It had 16 common graves, each containing 10 to 30 skeletons. And in ten more graves, six skeletons were found.

The cemetery was dated 1582-1583 and identified as plague. In 1573-1588, an outbreak of bubonic plague swept across Europe – another wave of black death that killed up to 50 percent of the population of the western part of the continent in the 14th century.

Common graves were usually dug precisely during catastrophic events, such as an epidemic. Indeed, just at the beginning of the 80s of the 16th century, the plague reached Sardinia and devastated it.

Child treated for syphilis found in plague grave in Sardinia 2
Plague grave in which the skeleton of a child was found

In total, archaeologists found the remains of 181 people in this cemetery, including 51 women, 36 men, 86 children; five more victims of the plague could not be confidently identified by sex and age.

A paper was published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences , the authors of which focused on the study of the skeleton of a child who died at the age of 3.5-4.5 years.

The baby’s teeth were very strangely deformed. This is noticeable even though the skeletal remains are partially preserved, the cranial bones were heavily fragmented, and several teeth were missing due to postmortem loss. The condition of the surviving incisors and molars did not meet the standards for this age.

Microtomographic analysis revealed extremely low enamel volume values, and chemical analysis showed very high levels of mercury in hard tissues.

Based on these data, the researchers concluded that the child received mercury. In Europe at that time, it was almost impossible to accidentally obtain this not the most common metal.

Most likely, he was treated that way. Moreover, the authors of the work suggested that the young patient had syphilis.

Child treated for syphilis found in plague grave in Sardinia 3
Tooth enamel is severely damaged due to exposure to mercury

In general, mercury treatment has been known to mankind since at least the time of Ancient China: according to some reports, women used this metal as a means of contraception.

Later, Arab doctors, according to Avicenna, treated skin diseases with mercury. But such deadly therapy reached its heyday just in the 16th century.

The era of the great geographical discoveries gave Europeans not only overseas lands and tobacco addiction.

The Spanish sailors who returned to their homeland brought syphilis with them (now it is believed that he was in Eurasia before, but in much less dangerous forms).

In North and South America, this disease was endemic and not particularly terrible: the local population developed a good immunity to it. For the Europeans, it turned into a real disaster.

The fact is that syphilis came to Europe before the era of Puritanism came there. In the field of sexuality, manners were still largely medieval.

Consequently, its sexual spread was very rapid. And how to fight is not clear. It is believed that the treatment of this disease with mercury began in Spain in the 15th century. Fortunately, there were enough reserves of this metal.

But the method was popularized in the first half of the 16th century by the physician and alchemist Paracelsus.

Although his reputation in medical circles was, to put it mildly, dubious, the general population welcomed the treatment, flavored, like other recipes of this authority, with alchemy and magic.

Therefore, mercury began to be widely used not only for treatment, but also – in those who were especially afraid of getting sick – for the prevention of syphilis. And this continued until the 19th century.

Child treated for syphilis found in plague grave in Sardinia 4
The engraving depicts the treatment of syphilis. Mercury ointment is most likely rubbed into the patient’s leg

Mercury was used in four ways: by rubbing mercury ointment on various parts of the body, applying special mercury patches, fumigating in a hot cabinet with cinnabar (raw mercury sulfide), and finally taking it orally in the form of pills.

Despite the fact that the skeleton of a child from the plague cemetery in Alghero does not have pathological changes characteristic of patients with syphilis, the authors of the work suggest that he was treated with mercury for this disease.

According to scientists, he could get syphilis from birth – from a mother who suffered from this disease.

Researchers note that in the same period, mercury was used to treat a number of dermatological diseases and to kill lice and fleas.

But the mercury content in the remains is very high: either the child constantly suffered from skin diseases and lice, which is rare, or they still treated the “gift” from America.

But no matter what disease he was treated (or maimed for?), he is by far the youngest mercury-treated patient in the paleopathological literature to date.


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