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Disease Detective 

Deborah Hayden's new book, Pox, pulls the covers off famous people with syphilis. That's right: syphilis.

Wednesday, Jan 15 2003
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Two women drive into a parking lot near the Ferry Building in San Francisco. They show identification to a bald man sitting in a van. "Is this the place for ... the dinner?" asks one of the women. "Shhh," the man cautions, eyes scanning the almost empty lot. He hands them a map. They walk a few blocks to Schroeder's Cafe, a German hofbrau-style restaurant hunkered down amongst Financial District skyscrapers. Treading gingerly inside the dimly lit, cavernous dining hall, past a small herd of glass-eyed deer heads nailed to a wall, syphilis researcher Deborah Hayden and her nervous friend join a small group of white people gathered in a back room. The friend fears she is entering a den of neo-Nazi skinheads, but most of those waiting are middle-aged and have at least a little hair. They are here to eat schnitzel and schmooze with historian David Irving, the controversial Hitler apologist and author of two dozen books about World War II.

When Irving brags that he has shaken hands with more people who knew Hitler than anyone else alive, Hayden's friend, wigged out by the scene, buries her face in a plate of veal stroganoff. The historian complains that his house in England was recently seized to pay a bankruptcy court judgment. Irving -- who insists that the Third Reich did not systematically exterminate Jews -- went broke after losing a libel suit in 2000 against an American author who charged that he had falsified Holocaust history. His dinner companions nod their heads in sympathy and open their wallets.

Hayden, however, is not here to support Irving (she has no doubts about what happened in Hitler's ovens). She has a scholarly purpose in mind. She approaches Irving with a question: Did Hitler have syphilis? Irving tells her, as he has written, that Hitler tested negative for the venereal disease, which at the time was usually fatal. Despite Irving's unpopular Holocaust views, his professional opinion still carries weight with some Hitler scholars. Hayden, on the other hand, believes that Hitler was rotting to death from late-stage syphilis and that his condition affected the course of history. It is typical of the intrepid Hayden that she chose to beard Irving in his lair, rather than contact him via a more antiseptic method such as e-mail or telephone.

"I wanted to look him in the eye," she says, smiling.

Hayden, 57, owns and operates a direct-mail consulting firm in Corte Madera. In her spare time, she has become a remarkably persistent medical detective, developing a method for following the trail of syphilis in the lives of the dead and famous. Her first book, Pox -- Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis, arrived in the nation's stores last week. If early reviews -- including a positive one recently in the New York Times -- are any barometer, Hayden's book promises to be both controversial and popular. It is certainly timely, since syphilis is resurgent in urban America. (In San Francisco, the Department of Public Health has mounted a "Healthy Penis" campaign, replete with bus-shelter posters of chuckling syphilis chancres attacking innocent dicks.) Pox breaks ground in the fields of medical history and biography by presenting a template of how syphilis manifests itself in the historical record. As examples of syphilitics, Hayden presents 15 historical celebrities, including Ludwig van Beethoven, Friedrich Nietzsche, Abraham Lincoln, James Joyce, and her pièce de résistance, Hitler.

Hayden is what is known in academic circles as an independent scholar, i.e., she is not associated with an institution, and she has a day job. But her attention to historical and scientific detail and her talent for understatement have earned her the respect of many prominent scholars. And even experts who disagree with Hayden's findings are impressed by her detective zeal.


Hayden lives with her dog Rugby in a ranch house atop a mountain near San Anselmo. You can see San Francisco from the bay window of her living room. The spacious home is sparsely furnished: bed, a few chairs, treadmill, dining table covered with books, computer niche, and shelves and shelves of volumes about syphilis.

"My garage burned down a few years ago," Hayden says wistfully. "I lost 28 boxes of books."

Her father, an inventor who patented a popular wool-braiding machine, and her mother, who wrote unpublished children's books, ran a flight school in Oakland during Hayden's childhood. To this day, she loves to go up in small planes and gliders. An only child, she liked her parents. "I learned to be creative and independent from them," she says.

"My mother was a smoker. Watching her die of lung cancer [in 1982] was horrendous. I was surprised by the depth of my grief. My father pined away and died a few years later.

"Somewhere around 1990, I made an appointment to talk to a therapist because I was working absurdly long hours on the [direct-mail] business and I was feeling burned out -- there was something missing. In the first session, he asked what I would most like to do and, without thinking, I said I'd like to read everything I could find about Lou Andreas Salomé." Salomé, an early 20th-century female psychologist, was close to both Sigmund Freud, an originator of modern psychology, and nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Hayden had become intrigued by Salomé in the mid-'60s as a student at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. She had taken a class about Salomé's tempestuous friendship with Nietzsche before the influential philosopher slipped into madness. After college, Hayden moved to Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and working part time at the famed Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, a mecca for English-speaking literati. Returning to San Francisco, she managed a bookstore for the Esalen Institute, a New Age outfit that mixed spiritual self-discovery with pop psychology, futurism, and deep body massage. After working on direct mail for Esalen, Hayden started Pacific Lists, which matches nonprofit groups like Doctors Without Borders, the San Francisco Food Bank, and Harvard Medical School with potential donors.

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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