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Pox: Genius, Madness, And Mysteries Of Syphilis

3.74  ·  Rating Details ·  275 Ratings  ·  39 Reviews
Was Beethoven experiencing syphilitic euphoria when he composed "Ode to Joy"? Did van Gogh paint "Crows Over the Wheatfield" in a fit of diseased madness right before he shot himself? Was syphilis a stowaway on Columbus's return voyage to Europe? The answers to these provocative questions are likely "yes," claims Deborah Hayden in this riveting investigation of the effects ...more
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published January 3rd 2003 by Basic Books
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Jan 18, 2013 Nancy rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
I stumbled across this book looking for something else at the library. The premise was alluring. From the jacket blurb, it sounded like many creative famous men had syphilis and that it contributed to their genius. As it turned out, a lot of famous creative men might have had syphilis. Almost nobody owns up to having this awful venereal disease which exhibits a huge variety of symptoms as it progresses through the body. I did learn that it was real bummer of a disease before the advent of penici ...more
Jul 25, 2009 Seoda rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found that this was quite an enjoyable read...At first I was a bit intimidated by the format...Introductory chapters followed up by a slew of biographical pieces...But it had me hooked till the end! One aspect of these accounts I found extremely disturbing was the cavalier spreading of the disease by some of its victims, particularly the celebrated authors. (The account of one luminary painting a false sore on his penis, showing his female companion, and then assaulting her comes to mind.)

Tina Dyer
Jun 05, 2008 Tina Dyer rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Really well-written, if a bit paranoia-inducing. "Pox" compares the biographies of a number of notables people--including Van Gogh, Abraham & Mary Todd Lincoln, Oscar Wilde--with the symptomology of syphilis in its three stages, to alarming effect. If, as posited here, syphilis was the "disease that dare not speak its name" and infected fully 25% of the European population in the 19th century, then it is entirely possible that our whole concept of the "artistic genius" is driven by the etiol ...more
Mostly Pox: etc left me curiously unsatisfied. It's not that I believe or disbelieve that various historical figures had syphilis (although I'm highly unconvinced by the Schumann chapter), it's the author's methods I have issues with. Syphilis is referred to throughout as the 'great imitator' and yet most of the time, other suggestions for what could be the cause of the symptoms shown in each "case" are not mentioned, never mind being discussed and shown to be unlikely. The one exception to this ...more
Well researched and written. It was almost a Who's Who of famous people with the pox. Interesting but I was more interested in the disease itself, which the first section covered well. . .
Mar 07, 2017 Molly rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of my all-time favorites, though the scholarship is a little old and the Hitler chapter is rather questionable. Nevertheless, a frequent re-read.
Aug 14, 2016 Donna rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I started to read this book before I had to be put on IV antibiotics for advanced Lyme and soon was unable to read anymore. In about April this year I finally was able to complete the book. I was amazed I had been able to recall all I had read before stopping. I found this book to be much more amusing and easy to read than I thought it might be, as the author did an equally intriguing job explaining the history of the medical understanding of the disease and technical/medical side of this story ...more
Andrew Tollemache
Apr 18, 2015 Andrew Tollemache rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For starters, this not a book you want to be seen prominently reading at Starbuck's or maybe you do?

Hayden's book sets out to argue that many of the famous genius madmen (and women) of the 19th century were actually suffering from decade(s) long bouts with syphilis. Although a number of people profiled have been alleged pox cariers for years, Hayden argues that by reading through their extensive collections of letters and testimonies of friends any number of figures like Beethoven, Flaubert, va
I have a soft spot for these medical/historical postulatings, and I found this one quite enjoyable. It begins with a thorough discussion of the origins and history of syphilis, the various stages of the disease, and the attempted treatments in history. The last two-thirds of a book is a discussion of famous people who might have had (or even admitted they did have) syphilis and the course the illness took in their lives. Even though I enjoyed the book, I felt it became a bit repetitive by the en ...more
Eric Rasmussen
This book features a terribly alluring thesis - many of the greatest artists, thinkers, and politicians of the past several hundred years found greatness because of late stage syphilis, which can cause the most divine of inspiration before plunging the victim into madness. The first part of the book details the history and biology of the disease, which I found very interesting. Then the rest presents individuals and makes a case for them having syphilis (all speculation, as great historical figu ...more
Louise (A Strong Belief in Wicker)
I haven't read the whole book, but loved the very interesting chapter on Oscar Wilde. Full of rich detail, it's fascinating to ponder if Oscar really did have syphilis. And is The Picture of Dorian Grey a parable for living with the knowledge that you have a dreaded disease? Intriguing. However I do think some of her arguments are a little far fetched. I'd be interested in reading the rest of the book at some stage. I've now read the chapter on Flaubert, which is again very interesting. Flaubert ...more
Aug 04, 2014 Livia rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Just okay; the tone and narrative style was better suited to a scholarly article. Not that the writing was bad, but the author wrote as though the reader was already an expert on the historical figures and the medical terms being used, which made it confusing and sometimes hard to follow. Also, there are endless repetitions and the sheer amount of detail and evidence included would make it useful as a reference but tedious to read. I was able to stay interested and get to the end by skimming and ...more
May 26, 2015 Dawna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well researched--to the point of belaboring insistence, at times. However this becomes understandable after a quick look at internet biographies reveals that STILL, in this day and age, historians attempt to subsume the source of neurological disease as anything but apparent syphilis. Syphilis is an atrocious disease, made even more deplorable by adding stigma to the afflicted wretches who suffered with its relentless deterioration. What tragedy and horror this scourge wrought, both for its vict ...more
Nov 10, 2013 Chris rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I always associated the sickness “pox” with Small Pox until this book set me straight and I now know that “The Pox” is syphilis. There’s lots to learn from this book and in a pretty entertaining way. Quite a few misconceptions I had about this STD were corrected and the fascinating biographies were often a surprise. Who knew about Abe Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, Van Gogh? It explains Nietzsche’s depressing philosophy and Hitler’s madness, and Oscar Wilde’s creativity. A good mix of history and s ...more
Apr 23, 2014 Martha rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I always wondered why those 19th century artists and musicians were so melancholy. Sad, sad tales of a forgotten plague. While there is some speculation involved (e.g., chapter on Hitler), the medical microbiological scholarship is sound. I read this after finding a death certificate of my grandfather's cousin, a lawyer and father of 10 children who died in the insane asylum in San Antonio of "general paresis", i.e. tertiary syphilis. A tragedy 30 years before penicillin.

Standard "I read this, but damned if I can remember exactly when, why, or a lot of the details" disclaimer:
My rating is based on my memory of how much or little I enjoyed the book at that time. In some cases, "at that time" might mean before most Goodreads users were born. OTOH, it could mean a couple years ago.

Your mileage may vary. Heck, given how all our tastes change over the years and the fickle nature of memory, my own mileage might vary if I re-read it today.
Sep 19, 2014 Joan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Hayden's study consists of two theses, that more creative people than we think of had syphilis, and that syphilis could have been the cause of their creativity. Although the book is speculative she has done a good job of documenting evidence for her first theses, although in some cases she's reaching. I'm not convinced of her second theses. Good general lay introduction to the history, symptoms, and course of the disease over the last 500 years.
Sep 20, 2008 Ann rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Hmmm. It was alright. Too often it read like a stack of conspiracy theories, though. Some of the characters were sympathetic, but Flaubert was just gross. Very well researched and generally thought provoking.
Jan 07, 2010 Kaitlin rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, nonfiction
The biographical part is poorly written and overly speculative. The medical part at the beginning is great. Mostly just "hey did you know ____ had syphillis?" which is a good conversation starter sometimes.
Aug 09, 2008 Molly rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
the assumed origin and world-wide migration of syphilis.
names many historical figures/world leaders/artists that are thought to have contracted syphilis, the treatments that were tried, and the lifestyles of the sick.
Feb 11, 2008 Jenifer rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My husband didn't want me to take this book out of the house. He thought people would think I was weird if they saw me reading a book about syphilis.

This was a very interesting book that shed some light on some very interesting characters in history.
J Eseltine
Fascinating - interesting to consider the impact this disease has had on the history of the world; terrible suffering physically and mentally, not to mention the social stigma related to this epidemic condition.
Steve Walsh
Oct 20, 2016 Steve Walsh rated it it was ok
Good insights into the effects of infectious disease on history and how trying to hide the shame for fear of stigma led to many issues. Also provides a plethora of info on the effects of syphilis. Worth a skim if you can stand areas of repetitiveness.
Jul 10, 2009 Guttersnipe rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good front info, but then goes over historical case studies. Interesting, but without prooof it remain conjecture.
Pretty good read. Who knew syphilis made you a temporary genuis and then a raving lunatic?
Aaron Brown
Truly an interesting read! Say no more.
Jul 20, 2007 Heidi rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone not squeamish about disease
Shelves: non-fiction
My favorite piece of non-fiction. Not just for people who are fascinated by syphillis, but anyone who is interested in the creative process and what makes a "genius."
Oct 21, 2007 Katie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was harder to get through than other books. It goes through a brief history of syphilis before brief chapters on some famous people who are confirmed or rumored syphilitics.
A fascinating, well-researched and very convincing account of a disastrous epidemic we've had the luxury to more-or-less forget.
Sep 03, 2007 Robert rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well written, convincing arguments about Syphilis. Also, a great meditation on the nature of genius.
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