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The Great Pox - Syphylis

by J. H. Hacsi

Nobel prize winning German chemist Paul Ehrlich was an irrepressible man who smoked over two dozen cigars a day, loved to drink beer for hours each evening with his lab assistant and colleagues, but above all loved ideas and was unrestrained in his devotion to his work. Early in his career he began to dream of creating magic bullets, compounds that would have a specific attraction to disease-causing microorganisms. These ”magic bullets” would seek out and destroy the “bad” cells while having no harmful effects on healthy ones

Ehrlich had learned from his early work with chemical dyes that bodily tissues reacted differently to different stains. From this he reasoned that compounds could be developed that targeted disease-producing organisms. These compounds could carry toxins to destroy these organisms.

In 1908 Ehrlich began an attempt to cure sleeping sickness using arsenic, well known as the favorite poison of murderers. In 1909 he and his colleague, Sahachre Hata, found that their compound number 606 wasn’t toxic to the bacterium that caused sleeping sickness, but did destroy the bacteria that caused syphilis.

Hallelujah! They could create a magic bullet for one of the worst plagues known to man.

At that time the only treatment for syphilis was with mercury, which was used both orally and as an ointment. This treatment, used first in the late 15th Century, held sway for over three centuries. Results were poor, at best. Now at last a real cure was at hand.

Ehrlich named his compound “Salvarsan.” It was heralded as a “miracle cure.” When Ehrlich entered the auditorium at a scientific congress at Koenigsbert to give a speech, there was wild, frantic, long-lasting applause. In his speech Ehrlich recounted how he had developed the “magic bullet.” He reminded his audience of the terrors of syphilis, how sufferers went to a horrible death, often in insane asylums. The only prior treatment, mercury, often could not cure it or prevent this tragic end.

Ehrlich then went on to tell of those he had treated with his “magic bullet.” One shot of the compound and they were cured. If given a shot at two in the afternoon, by evening they would be enjoying hearty meals. The cures were miraculous. The applause that followed was long and thunderous.

Patients rushed forward. Requests for treatment, demands for treatment, were everywhere. Reports of instant cures poured in, but so did reports of unexpected problems. Salvarsan (compound 606) and its derivative (compound 914) were given by injection to start with. This was so painful and often caused such severe side effects that this method was abandoned and physicians began to administer the bullet intravenously.

The side effects of this treatment were numerous: nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, chills, fever, and headache. In 1913 Henry Pulsford, M.D., a New Jersey dermatologist, warned his colleagues that one standard dose of Salvarsan contained more arsenic than a murderer needed to kill someone. Sudden deaths following treatment began to be reported from every direction.

That deaths were occurring went against everything Paul Ehrlich had put his faith in. As he was forced to grapple with the reports, he became a shadow of the man he’d been. He corresponded frantically with people all around the world, trying to understand and explain away the deaths. That thousands had been cured and only a small percentage of those treated had died did not matter. No one should have died! He had a gambler’s heart and he had gambled, admittedly, but he had never intended to become a murderer. The fact that his miracle compound seemed to be killing people was killing him.

There was another dismal setback. In time it was found that Ehrlich’s one dose “magic bullet” often failed to cure. Patients thought to have been cured frequently relapsed.

This was too much. Ehrlich’s buoyancy drained away. Convinced that his life’s work had been in error, in 1915 Paul Ehrlich died, a smashed and shattered man.

The Father of Chemotherapy had based his tireless work on the premise that poisons could be introduced into the body that would target disease-producing microorganisms without harming healthy tissue. This premise was wrong and on his deathbed Dr. Ehrlich knew it.

The world was not yet ready for a genuine “miracle cure.” Ehrlich’s arsenic compound was diluted and replaced mercury as the standard, rather ineffectual treatment for the Great Pox until after World War II.

The Great Pox syphilis – the loathsome disease, life’s dark, dirty little secret -- raged during centuries when the Mother Church, with its message that non-marital sex was sinful, reigned supreme. Syphilis was almost always transmitted through sexual contact with a prostitute, and every aspect of his culture told the syphilitic that he had sinned against his body and his soul. If he felt shame, this could compromise his immune system and lower resistance to disease.

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. Biologists Howard Florey and Ernst Chain successfully purified it to where it was safe for humans. The drug was used widely on the battlefields of World War II to prevent and cure infections in American troops.

When the war ended, the U.S government tried to push the country back into its restrictive pre-war culture, with very limited success. In the 1960s, after The Pill hit the market and the reawakened feminist movement took hold, a sexual revolution followed. Those of both sexes who wanted to experience numerous partners gave themselves license to do so, with almost no culturally imposed guilt.

In this brave new world of open sexuality, where it is assumed that dating couples are enjoying an “adult” relationship, where members of either sex can talk openly on TV about enjoying “threesomes,” where many couples live together for months or years before deciding to marry, in a culture where it is hard to find even a hint of sexual guilt, a genuine magic bullet, penicillin, can cure us if we happen to get infected with the once dreaded, loathsome disease of syphilis.


Excerpted from Plagues Past and Present, A Mind/Body/Approach by J. H. Hacsi. Paper, $14.

Available at Baker and Taylor, www.Amazon.com or on order from any bookstore

J. H. graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and earlier in her life wrote short stories (over 200 published) and romance novels (eight published). Throughout her life she has been greatly interested in history and science, also the role of the mind and mysticism and has read widely in these fields. She is a widow with five sons and five grandchildren and lives in Claremont, CA.

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