Disease Detective

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

In December, the first capsule appraisals of Pox appeared. Kirkus Reviews complimented Hayden's scholarly understatement. The Publisher's Weekly reviewer complained that she had romanticized the final stages of the disease as mystically creative and that the chapter on Hitler was poorly organized. Nonetheless, the reviewer predicted that her arguments "are sure to provoke debate."

Hayden, who describes herself as a private person, has no desire to become the center of an intellectual storm. She has, in fact, gone to tremendous lengths to minimize the possibility of scholarly attack on her case studies. Pacing her austere living room a week before Christmas, she says with uncharacteristic forcefulness: "I did not make a blanket statement where the opposite can be argued. Do you know how hard I worked to not make wild statements that can be argued against? Not to go to the dreaded 'therefore'?" Clearly, though, Hayden believes that all of her subjects were syphilitic; she just refuses to curse them with a final pronouncement.

Nevertheless, the case histories of Hayden's "patients" can be teased toward summary, although it is necessary to read each chapter in order to fairly weigh the circumstantial evidence she piles up.

Deborah Hayden
Paolo Vescia
Deborah Hayden
Writer Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) caught the pox 
from her husband.
Courtesy Library of Congress
Writer Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) caught the pox from her husband.

- Beethoven, who frequented houses of ill repute, very likely went deaf, then insane from syphilis -- but not before he had created great, swelling, euphoric symphonies, possibly as a result of late-stage syphilitic elation.

- Schubert's disease was "common knowledge among his friends, shared in their letters, although, of course, it was never named." The composer died at age 31, singing maniacally on his deathbed.

- Schumann's autopsy revealed the presence of what were probably syphilitic tumors at the base of his brain. As madness and paralysis set in, he felt that he was being serenaded by heavenly angels.

- Poet Charles Baudelaire, who soothed his chronic ailments with opium, laudanum, valerian, and brandy, told his mother in a letter that he had a recurrent venereal disease.

- Long before he became president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln told his biographer, friend, and law partner, William Herndon, that he had caught the disease "during a devilish passion with a girl." His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, died suffering from a wasting disease of the spine that is often caused by the pox.

- Flaubert, author of the first "realistic" novel, Madame Bovary, was a bisexual swinger who seems to have picked up the disease during his travels. His regular mercury rubs caused him to drool profusely, often three pints of saliva a day.

- French writer Guy de Maupassant bragged about having caught syphilis. "Allelujah, I've got the pox," he wrote to a friend. "So I don't have to worry about catching it anymore, and I screw the street whores and trollops, and afterwards I say to them 'I've got the pox.' They are afraid and I just laugh."

- Painter Vincent van Gogh wrote 874 letters to his syphilitic brother, Theo. "A careful reading reveals numerous references that suggest that Vincent and his brother were well aware of each other's disease and wrote of it in safe, veiled language," writes Hayden. Her book sympathetically examines the life of van Gogh's common-law wife, Clasina Hoornik, who also was infected and whom the painter cast off to fend for herself as their mutual doom approached. Hoornik is the only "common" person treated by Hayden and is, without a doubt, the least despicable syphilitic of the lot.

- Whether or not Oscar Wilde died from syphilis has been the subject of learned articles in prestigious medical journals. Hayden summarizes this literature, noting that Wilde probably caught the disease from the "one and only campus prostitute" at Oxford University, and possibly passed it on to his wife, Constance, who died of spinal paralysis. Wilde's chances at syphilitic euphoria were canceled by his consumption of a liter of brandy every day.

- Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa under the pen name Isak Dinesen, caught the pox from her husband, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. In 1926, Blixen wrote to her brother, "If it didn't sound so beastly I might say that, the world being as it is, it was worthwhile having syphilis in order to become a Baroness."

Hayden treats each of her subjects in a detached fashion, methodically marshaling the evidence for syphilis while acknowledging the arguments of naysayers. But it is for Nietzsche and Hitler -- who among all her characters arguably had the greatest impact on history -- that she reserves her most thorough treatment.


"Nietzsche is a personal philosopher," Hayden says. "His aphorisms may be read in many different ways. His influence on religion, politics, art, music, and psychology is remarkable." When she goes to scholarly conferences on Nietzsche, she says, she knows more about his life than do many of the academics, who are focused on his philosophy.

Nietzsche's works were known only to the few during his lifetime, but in death he influenced many Western intellectuals with his nihilistic (the desire for nothingness) approach to all systems of thought. His writings shaped the thinking of many early psychologists, including Freud, Carl Jung, and Salomé. He also influenced political reactionaries, including Hitler and his followers, with his notion of the "superman" whose duty is to exploit inferior human beings.

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