Disease Detective

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

In 1889, shortly after experiencing a burst of creative activity, Nietzsche was admitted to the psychiatric clinic of Dr. Ludwig Wille of Basel, Switzerland, an expert on how general paralysis manifests itself in the insane. Wille recorded his new patient as "Syphilit Infect," noting that he had acquired the disease in 1866 at the age of 23. Finally diagnosed in middle age, Nietzsche took 11 long years to die, during which he had moments of lucidity even though he was as likely on any given day to be smearing his feces on the wall.

Nietzsche's writings at once enlighten and infuriate liberal scholars, such as Schaberg, the Nietzsche expert who consulted on Pox for Hayden. Schaberg complains that the philosopher was "a radical aristocrat, very anti-democratic." Hayden acknowledges that Nietzsche was an elitist, but argues that he nonetheless has broad appeal. She likes Nietzsche's letters the best of all his work. If his problems were indeed caused by syphilis, she says, "then his archive is the most profound and eloquent record of a syphilitic that exists."

She is drawn to Nietzsche's notion that truth is perceived differently by different people, that a person's reality is relative to his personal story. To Hayden, the "superman" is not about genetic superiority. Rather, she says, "it is about self overcoming adversity, such as illness."

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.

Hayden's book spends little time analyzing the creativity of her syphilitics in the light of their disease. But she agrees with Nietzsche's observation that "every great philosophy so far has been: namely, a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir." In Nietzsche's case, it is easy to place his misanthropic, messianic, nihilistic exaltations in the context of his miserable life, which was marked by social isolation, sexual confusion, and horrible physical pains attributable to syphilis.

In the 1930s, Nietzsche's name and philosophy were publicly associated with Hitler by Nietzsche's racist sister, Elizabeth. Although the two men certainly shared a hatred of democracy, Nietzsche was neither an anti-Semite nor a nationalist and would have viewed Hitler as a filthy upstart.

Hayden's main achievement as a scholarly sleuth is her chapter on Hitler. She relied heavily on two secondary sources, The Medical Casebook of Adolf Hitler, by Leonard and Renate Heston, and The Secret Diaries of Hitler's Doctors, by David Irving. She also worked with a primary source: a postwar debriefing of Hitler's doctors by U.S. military intelligence agents. Irving transcribed and published records of Hitler's primary physician, Dr. Theo Morell, a renowned syphilologist. These documents do not directly record syphilis as one of Hitler's afflictions, even though by 1944 the farting, eczematous, jaundiced, jerking, inattentive, drooling Führer was exhibiting signs of tertiary syphilis.

One of Hayden's discoveries is the significance of Morell's notation that Hitler's second heartbeat had a telltale tonal quality that often goes undetected unless the doctor is listening for it. The Stokes textbook Modern Clinical Syphilology had called attention to this aortic afterbeat as an almost sure sign of syphilis. Another Hayden discovery is that Morell aggressively treated his patient with potassium iodide, the medication of choice in 1940 for late-stage cardiovascular syphilis.

Adding to Hayden's pile of circumstantial evidence is a published remark by Hitler pal Putzi Hanfstaengl that the German leader had caught the pox in Vienna about 1908, presumably from a prostitute (according to some rumors, she was Jewish). His experience with syphilis might explain, Hayden says, why Hitler included sections in his memoir, Mein Kampf, devoted to "Syphilis, Blood Sin and Desecration of the Race"; "The Task of Combating Syphilis"; "Sound Mind-Sound Body"; "Sterilization of the Incurables"; and "Prostitution of the People's Soul."

Hayden believes that Hitler may have hastened the German war effort in a race against his impending death from heart failure or syphilitic paralysis. She takes pains, however, to point out that his well-known grandiosity and paranoia may not have been signs of syphilitic dementia (although they could have been), since he was, after all, Hitler, and even his own generals were trying to blow him up. In the end, though, Hayden concludes with characteristic detachment, "There is no definitive proof that Adolf Hitler had syphilis, any more than there is undeniable evidence that he did not."


As Pox's publication date approached, the trove of books, Xeroxed documents, rough drafts, and photographs of horrible sores, lesions, and syphilitically deformed babies that decorated Hayden's digs for so many years was neatly cataloged and filed away. Pox is being uncrated in bookstores across the land, graced with a cover featuring lightning flashes and images of the (probably) afflicted. There is nothing left for Deborah Hayden to do except some yoga, maybe have friends in for a gourmet meal.

Well, there is something. A Google search just turned up the death certificate of Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. It seems that he, too, had syphilis -- and the disease may have influenced his creation of that genteel man of the night whose befanged visage still haunts our culture. Hayden is off and running -- so little time, so many syphilitics to discover.

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