In this New York Times article, Jia-Rui Chong reports on a new study which suggests that that Christopher Columbus and his crew may be to blame for the spread of the sexually transmitted disease, syphilis, from the New World to the Old World. Researches came to this conclusion after discovering that the strain of the Treponema pallidum bacterium which causes syphilis was most closely related to bacteria they collected from a secluded tribe in the South American nation of Guyana. Due to this tribe’s seclusion, researchers believe the bacteria they collected from there is very similar to the bacteria which would have been found in the America’s during Columbus’ 1492 voyage. They point to this as proof that Columbus and members of his crew must have brought this strain of the bacteria with them from the New World back to the Old World. However, several experts are skeptical of these findings. They claim that the results of the study are not sufficient enough to prove that Columbus and his crew members transported syphilis from the New World to the Old World. Several experts argue that it is still possible that syphilis in Europe evolved from local strains. Simon Mays also points out that evidence has been uncovered which suggests that syphilis existed in the Old World long before Columbus traveled to the New World. Even Kristen Harper, the lead author of the study, seemed to suggest that she did not believe her study proved without a doubt that Columbus had brought syphilis to the Old World, stating “We decided to present this evidence because it is very suggestive…The controversy is not going to stop here (Harper, as qtd in Chong).”
I found this article to be interesting. Columbus’ reputation has certainly gone downhill in the last few years and if this study is correct, it doesn’t look like it will be improving anytime soon. However, I believe it will take a little bit more evidence before the results of this study can be touted as true. Additionally, as several of the experts who criticize the study point out, the researches seem to have overlooked or ignored certain evidence that would prove contrary to their findings. Nevertheless, it is an interesting theory and with time hopefully the truth will come out.
Chong, Jia-Rui. "Study ties Columbus to spread of syphilis." LA Times 15 Jan. 2008: A13.