The spread of syphilis in the Mexican capital in the 19th century

As of 1865, syphilis was endemic in Mexico City, affecting 70 percent of the population and not only those who practiced prostitution.

The spread of syphilis in the Mexican capital in the 19th century
Syphilis: It was verified that of the 77 skeletons analyzed, slightly less than half corresponded to male individuals. Image by Darko Djurin from Pixabay

Histopathological analysis of a skeletal series from the San Juan de Dios Hospital, where public women were confined after 1865, confirmed that by that time syphilis was endemic in Mexico City, affecting 70 percent of its population and not only those who practiced prostitution. One of the surprises for the research team was to verify that of the 77 skeletons analyzed, a little less than half, 35, corresponded to male individuals, presumably soldiers.

Of the total number of the skeletal series, 63.7 percent had Treponema pallidum, the agent of syphilis. According to the statistics, the greatest number of deaths occurred in individuals between the ages of 20 and 29, a period when people experience the most sexual activity. The morphoscopic observation of these remains proves different degrees of the disease: mild, moderate, and severe, the latter corresponds to 32% of the total sample.

The first level is characterized by inflammation of the periosteum, a membrane that covers the outer part of the bones; in the next condition (moderate) the bone grows in the form of a plate elevated above the cortex of the bone, changing its thickness and density. In the last degree of the disease -after the development of at least three years-, the bone is shattered in the part of the gumma (globular tumor) and the surrounding part usually becomes sclerotic.

Due to the negative connotation of the disease, as a disease of venereal origin, syphilis or "Bubas' disease" was hidden by those who suffered from it, so that it was not registered as an endemic disease among the population of the capital, although it was since the XVI century. Although it is not possible to know its incidence among the wealthy sectors of society in the last decades of the 19th century, the historical and clinical information from the San Juan de Dios hospital refers to its extension among the most vulnerable community.

Besides prostitutes and soldiers, it also included newborns infected through childbirth or breastfeeding by wet nurses, as well as children, young people, and adults who were infected during the application of the smallpox vaccine. By 1865, syphilis had become endemic and cases were seen in 70 percent of the population of Mexico City. People with more economic resources received treatment at home and were often unaware that they suffered from the condition.

Public women were confined to the Convent-Hospital San Juan de Dios. Soldiers and syphilitics in general, coming from the lower strata, were also sent there.

Syphilis, as a real public health problem in the capital in the second half of the 19th century, has also been confirmed with the examination of other skeletal series from the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Hospital San José de los Naturales, which was located in San Juan de Letrán, today Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas.

From the Hospital, San José de los Naturales -where it has been proven that not only people of indigenous origin were treated, but also of other affiliations such as African - 394 skeletons were analyzed and 17 showed advanced traces of Treponema pallidum, a dozen belonged to females and seven to males.

In the 19th century, there was no cure for syphilis, however, patients were given doses of mercury in different presentations, and even people with very advanced diseases were "fumigated" with this highly poisonous metal, which affected their respiratory system.

Therefore, they asked themselves: were those who presented the initial and secondary stages the result of the mercury treatment, or did other elements prevent the condition from progressing to the tertiary level, did the individuals die before reaching the advanced stages, and did they die from syphilis or the high presence of chemical elements?

Source: INAH