Arsenic, Syphilis and Malaria

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum pallidum. The disease presents itself in four stages (primary, secondary, latent and tertiary), with each stage being characterized by different symptoms and levels of infectivity. The history of this disease is nowadays disputed; some still think that Columbus and his crew brought syphilis to the Old World in 1493, but others suggest that syphilis originated in the Old World, simply going unrecognized until the early 15th century or perhaps noticeably increasing in prevalence or virulence at roughly this time[1].
[Congenital syphilis before penicillin]
Malaria is a mosquito-borne infectious disease caused by parasitic protozoans (a group of single-celled microorganisms) belonging to the Plasmodiums. Malaria causes symptoms that typically include fever, fatigue, vomiting and headaches. In severe cases it can cause yellow skin, seizures, coma or death. The history of this disease is a long one: the first evidence of malaria parasites was found in mosquitoes preserved in amber from the Palaeogene Era and that are approximately 30 million years old[2]. The symptoms of malaria were described in ancient Chinese medical writings (the Nei Ching or the 'Canon of Medicine')[3].

In 1786 Thomas Fowler, a British physician, published a study on the effectiveness of his solution of 1% potassium arsenite which he called 'Liquor mineralis', for 'agues, remittent fevers, and periodical headaches'[4]. In 1809 'Liquor mineralis', known by that time as 'Fowler’s solution', was accepted into the London Pharmacopeia and became widely used as an alternative to quinine for 'agues' (malaria) and was used for 'sleeping sickness' (trypanosomiasis).
Fowler’s solution remained a treatment for many conditions well into the 20th century and was still listed along with arsenic trioxide and sodium arsenate in the 1914 edition of the 'American Medical Association’s Handbook of Useful Drugs' as treatment for skin cancer, chronic inflammatory skin disorders, malaria, syphilis and protozoal diseases[4].

[1] Armelagos et al: The Science behind Pre-Columbian Evidence of Syphilis in Europe: Research by Documentary in Evolutionary Anthropology – 2013. See here.
[2] Poinar Jr: Plasmodium dominicana n. sp. (Plasmodiidae: Haemospororida) from Tertiary Dominican amber in Systematic Parasitology – 2005
[3] Neghina et al: Malaria, a Journey in Time: In Search of the Lost Myths and Forgotten Stories in American Journal of Medical Sciences - 2010
[4] Jolliffe: A history of the use of arsenicals in man in Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine - 1993. See here.
[5] Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry, American Medical Association: A Handbook of Useful Drugs. Chicago, Press of the American Medical Association - 1914

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