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Unknown Man: Syphiloderma Papulosum Circinatum
Private collection of John Wood
SYPHILIS IS by no means a disease which invariably acknowledges a venereal origin. . . . This patient had a very severe type of disease. There were present nearly all of the usual symptoms, and treatment had little effect. . . . October 22d Syphilitic papules; a few on the forehead, and a number of small crusts on the scalp. Closer examination revealed a dark-red patch on the gum, which, according to the patient had been swollen and hard for two months or more. The patient's little daughter, eight years old, had also come to the dispensary with an eruption on her body. She had a large ulcerated patch on the inside of her lower lip. Her health was impaired, and, according to her father's statement, she did not look or act as she had done before. Here evidently was a second case of syphilis resulting from an oral chancre. I now made a prying examination into the affairs of the family for the preceding year, and learned that about eight months before they had a boarder, a woman, who had whitish sores on her lips. She was accustomed to play with and fondle the patient's little son, two years old, who soon got a sore on his tongue, with lumps in the neck, and afterwards had a copious eruption on the body. Next, the wife and mother, who was pregnant at the time, acquired a sore mouth, with submaxillary swelling, followed in a month or so by spots over the body. Then the daughter became infected, as already described, and lastly the father. November 21st--To-day the mother came to the dispensary. The baby, five weeks old, was covered with papular eruption, which had appeared suddenly four days before, and had spread rapidly from the head over the whole body. The infant soon died, and what this family suffered, through no fault of their own, but merely from the unfortunate circumstance of having kept a syphilitic boarder, the reader can readily imagine. Scores of such instances doubtless are occurring of which no record is made, no history written.
[George Henry Fox (1846-1937), American pioneer in dermatology]
In solemn outbreaks of the face
the twisting spirochetes move
at blood-speed microscopic
and silent at their driven,
predestined labors. And soon
their swarm will be elsewhere,
and he will begin to soften
into bits of failing flesh.
But they are not thinking,
"We will soon bring him down."
They move without mind, blind,
oblivious to their purpose.
But soon he will be brought down,
as will the rest of them.
The headaches have already begun,
the pains in the joints; his wife,
his son now have fevers, weight loss,
the pustules; the baby is buried;
his daughter's progress is slower;
who will care for her?
He remembers how glad they'd been
for the rent money, the things
they'd promised her and planned.
There could be no frenzy like this,
no sorrow the equal, or consolation
worth the speaking.
Look at him and tell me anything
benevolent chained us in nature's links.
The Making only cared for life itself.
He and his pain have been gone
a hundred years now. Yet in that dust
once the marrow of his bones,
glowing like tiny, distant galaxies,
the dormant spirochetes sleep,
dreaming of lymph, blood,
the long journeys without meaning.
John Wood Endurance and Suffering: Narratives of Disease in the 19th Century (Edition Galerie Vevais, 2009) [Note: First edition is dated March 2007 but was published in October 2008.]