Syphilis and my Grandpa Bob

This past week, had he still been alive, my wonderful grandfather would have turned 93. He was a very good-looking chap – a lot like Jack Nicholson, I think – and had he lived in another country in another time, I quite fancy the idea of him as a film star. His good looks, however, were the least remarkable thing about him. He was an A-grade eccentric with a beautiful imagination, a mean streak, the sort of secrets that could get you arrested in Apartheid South Africa and a deep love for me that I returned with absolute devotion and a wilful disregard of all of his failings. He could really punish a bottle of whisky but I knew he would never hurt me like I know green is green. I’d like to believe it was because we recognised each other. I was a B-grade eccentric. I had a beautiful imagination. We drew. We watched the same movies again and again. More likely though, he recognised my mother. I have her face. His Marlene had died in 1979. Hers is a story for another day. It is as sad as rain at sea. I was his second chance at her. But I’m wallowing here. I’ll move on shortly, although realistically a story that starts with Jack Nicholson and ends with syphilis is going to have more downs than ups and is probably going to be peculiar.

Grandpa Robert Oscar looking like Jack Nicholson before Jack Nicholson

His hair was of great importance to him. Well into his 60s, when it had receded a long way back and was entirely grey, he would dye his hair with black Clairol hair dye every couple of weeks. It was a major process this hair dyeing, and he called it Spot-the-difference. It would start with masking tape. He stuck it along his hairline and over his ears. It was like an elaborate house painting job, which is interesting because he used house paint to paint his leather shoes white. Then came the black dustbin bag, slit along the sealed end just enough to fit a head through to form a delightful protective suit. It ended with him washing his hands in bleach and pasting his hair back with La Pebras hair gel. He always smelled of bleach and Bostick (a runny glue which he used to glue the edges of my pocket-money together to create a ‘cheque book’).

He was an absolute wonder. He could tell stories like nobody else. Stories he had learnt growing up on Johannesburg’s gold mines. It was here that he learnt Funigalo, the made-up language created so that the mine workers from all over the world could understand each other. Two stories, South  African folk tales, stick with me and I haven’t heard them in over 20 years. Nina Kastromi was a local mish-mash of Little Red Riding Hood and The 3 Little Pigs, The White Feather was a tale of magic and consequence. (I would so love to track down these stories in print. If anybody can help me, we’ll be friends for life!) He loved Elvis Presley’s movies and hated Prince. He swore a lot; only ever the S-word. He made pirate copies of every Betamax video he ever rented. He put clay face masks on while wearing a shower cap on his head. He bathed in his underpants while I washed his socks.

Wemmer Pan’s musical fountains. Image source:

But far and away the most wonderful memory he ever gave me was that of an imaginary world. It was called Moneyland. This imaginary world though had the distinction of really existing in a real place. Wemmer Pan is one of Jo’burg’s oldest parks. Early pioneers would picnic on the banks of the dam. When I was growing up, every Saturday night Wemmer Pan hosted a magical fountain show. Fountains shot up into the air in time to music and all was lit by a fit-inducing dance of coloured lights. At least I imagine this is what happened on Saturday nights. We only ever went to Wemmer Pan on Sunday mornings. It was Wemmer Pan no longer. It was Moneyland! We would walk around the park where a few hours earlier a crowd had sat and watched the fountains. So distracted were they by the water and lights, my Grandpa told me, that they didn’t notice the coins falling out of their pockets in the dark. There was money everywhere! Just lying on the ground! It was with genuine heartbreak that years later I discovered that my Grandpa always wore the same pair of pants to Moneyland. He had Moneyland pants. The pockets of his Moneyland pants had been cut open. He walked ahead of me with the handfuls of change he had collected over the week in his fist. As he walked, he dropped coins down his pants leg. Moneyland! How could I not adore this man? He was an absolute wonder.

I also never needed to go to the doctor because my grandpa owned a red leather-bound copy of The Reader’s Digest Medical Encyclopedia. We could diagnose ourselves and implement suitable treatment plans. It is a testament to his skill that at 35, I still have both of my tonsils and my appendix. Nobody has ever stuck anything in my ears. I am perfectly intact.

He bought thermometers in bulk and the taking of temperature was a very important part of Doctor Grandpa’s consult. These were the old-fashioned thermometers, filled with mercury. When one had outlived its usefulness, he broke it open and collected the mercury in little plastic pill bottles. There were several of these bottles in the house and my cousins and I would play with the mercury for hours on end. It is wonderful stuff and I’m sorry that I have subsequently learnt that it might have killed us (and might yet still) because I would love my kids to see how seriously cool it is. Mercury is a heavy metal. It poisons your body. The symptoms of mercury poisoning are severe and pretty bloody awful. But we were not the only children to play with this dangerous poison; my grandfather not the only “doctor”. Up until the early 20th century, mercury was the best available treatment for syphilis.

Syphilis is a bacterial infection. It was most likely carried back to Europe from the New World after Columbus’ first expedition in the 1400s. The first recorded European outbreak was in Naples in the late 15th century. From there it spread throughout Europe, carried by the sailors and soldiers and passed on to the women and men they had sexual contact with. Syphilis would scar – both physically and with moral taint – its sufferers for about 500 years before an effective cure was discovered.’The Great Pox’, the ‘English Disease’, ‘The French Disease’, syphilis is an awful and disfiguring but not particularly deadly disease; not nearly as efficient a killer as smallpox. I’m reading a study published in 1870 which states that in London in 156 weeks between 1864, 1865 and 1866 only 127 deaths were attributed to syphilis in a population of over 3 000 000. This excludes the misdiagnoses (syphilis could look a lot like carcinoma) and death by opportunistic infection. The author of the study quotes figures of 1 in 6 soldiers in the French army as having been treated for syphilis and 1 in 3 in the English army. This seems like an extraordinarily number! The death rate is very low indeed when you look at these numbers.

The first symptom of the disease showed up about 3 weeks (as long as 3 months though in some cases) after infection. A small, painless ulcer appeared on the skin or internally; most often on the genitals of men and on the cervix of women but it could present as an ulcer on any part of the body that had direct contact with an infected person. These chancres became a bit dodgier after the first non-itchy phase but they disappeared on their own after a few weeks and the infected person could continue about their business as if nothing was wrong. This was primary syphilis.

Primary syphilitic chancres. Wax models from the late 19th century. Photo source: Property of University Health Network, Toronto, Canada
Copyright University Health Network Artifact Collection

So, you’d be carrying on with life and love when 2 months later a rash would appear. It might turn a bit pussy. You might develop a fever. You’d get a headache and your hair might fall out. This was secondary syphilis. Again though, after about 6 weeks of looking and feeling fairly awful, you would recover. Back to life.

19th century wax model of secondary syphilis part of the Welcome Collection of artefacts. It doesn’t look too bad does it?

If you were one of the very unlucky 30%, your secondary syphilis would turn into tertiary syphilis. If weeping pustules were bearable (There was a lot of that about. Even eczema of the head turned into something very nasty called ‘scald head’ in the 19th century and deaths were attributed to it.) the horrors of the next stage weren’t. It takes up to 46 years for tertiary syphilis to manifest. Long after you had forgotten the details of the night of passion or work or violence, you could develop giant gummas – huge bulbous growths on the face. By this stage the infection was also generally attacking bone, so the pain was intense. Your face would literally collapse and reform with hideous pus-filled lumps and extraordinary bone deposits made by a body trying to repair itself. Perhaps you would have counted yourself lucky if yours was neurosyphilis, in which case you would be stark-raving mad. Insanity is perhaps kinder than reality when a disease has left you looking like a monster.

Patient with tertiary syphilis. Not a pretty face. Image source: Wikipedia

Doctors had no idea what was causing the disease, other than sexual contact. Treatment ranged from herbal – a type of pansy was used, which actually had anti-microbial properties so might have been just a bit effective, to magical – sex with a virgin was thought to cure syphilis (And if you can even believe the barbarity of it, sex with a virgin is still believed to cure disease in South Africa today. In 2012, babies of 9 months are raped to cure AIDS), to very dangerous – mercury and malaria.

In the early 20th century Julius Wagner Jauregg won the Nobel Prize for his use of malaria as a treatment for syphilis. The incredibly high fevers of malaria effectively killed the bacteria responsible for syphilis. The patient was then given Quinine to cure the malaria and Bob’s your uncle, back to life.

For hundreds of years though from the 1600s through to the 1800s mercury, my childhood toy, was the go-to treatment. It caused hair loss, vomiting, loss of teeth and death. (“loss of teeth” seems rather inconsequential after death!) There were mercury lotions, pills, injections and vapour baths taken in a drum over a fire (!). Now, nobody in my immediate family had/ has syphilis. If, however, we were going to be buried instead of cremated, and if we were dug up hundreds of years from now, and if scientists performed tests on our bones they would find slightly raised levels of mercury. They would weave sad stories about poverty and prostitution and “a night with Venus, a lifetime of mercury”. I’m willing to bet that not one of them could imagine the story of a man who performed magic tricks at gas stations, cut holes in his best trousers and left as his legacy a family who believes in fairy tales. Fairy tales and luck. You see, those of us living still have all our teeth and there’s no great hair loss to speak of. Lucky.


28 thoughts on “Syphilis and my Grandpa Bob

  1. Tracy–You write so beautifully. The portrait of your father is memorable and loving. It is counterbalanced by your vivid description of the horrors of syphilis and the connection with mercury. I am looking forward to more…

  2. You brought back many memories of my wonderful storytelling grandfather to me too. Thank you! He wasn’t quite so eccentric but he did willingly take us as children on long walks with him (he walked 14kms every morning unless we went with him in which case it was only 5).
    As for syphilis, I saw a documentary yonks ago that refuted the disease being brought back from the Americas. It was really interesting. Apparently there were 2 types of syphilis – 1, was mild and shared through skin to skin contact – easily done in cultures that wear scant clothing and 2, the nastier sexually transmitted version they believe came about because of mutation to survive where clothing was too all-covering to allow for sufficient spread. Nothing was actually confirmed 100% but there was bone damage found in the bones of monks in monasteries from before Columbus discovered the Americas which indicates that the STD was around beforehand. I wish I had some more info on it, like the doco name etc but thought that being a history buff it may be of interest.
    Thank you for sharing your grandfather with us all too.

    • Grandpas are the best!

      Thanks for the info. I would also love to see the documentary. I was aware of the pre-Columbus theory. Its proponents suggest that many of the deaths attributed to leprosy were in fact syphilis. The Columbus theory though appeals to my sense of justice! Europe gave the Americas small pox, I’d like to believe that they returned the favour 🙂

    • Thanks. Like some people have obsessions with Jack the Ripper or Henry VIII or the Borgias, I have problems with really nasty historical afflictions. I don’t care to think too deeply about what this says about me as person!

  3. I am your biggest fan, Trace. This is beautiful and made me cry. You are beautiful. Cannot wait for my signed copy of your memoir. xxx

    • Thank you for being such a wonderful friend. Your name will appear on the acknowledgments page, not least of all because you’re going to have to edit it. That might require so much work that you could even justify signing it yourself 🙂

  4. Lovely story about your grandfather. It made me so emotional!

    The virgin sex for curing syphilis is horrific. I read in a statistic report once that about 60% of men in South Africa believe that a woman’s no means yes, and that rape is not a crime. Horrible!

    • Thanks!

      As for the virgin sex, I often look at my little daughter who is 3 and think who on earth could do that to her? I’ve quoted the statistic before somewhere but in South Africa, as a girl, you have a greater chance of being raped than of finishing school.

      • That’s very sad. I was reading about the widespread use of Rapex these days, while researching on an article for another blog of mine. (this one - and I was horrified by its prevalence and the stats in Africa. Virgin sex also seems prized in the Middle East.

  5. Really enjoyed this post. I’ve my fair share of unusual relatives (including a great aunt who married a Czech doctor off a whaling ship, who then shot himself while they were on honeymoon in the Highlands) and do like to hear about other people’s. A-grade eccentrics are probably ever so much easier to appreciate at one generation’s remove than as parents/spouses, I reckon.
    Have you heard of ‘Francesco’s Venice’? I think you’d enjoy all 4 espisodes, but no.3 ‘Sex’ sounds like it’d be right up your street…Casanova, masked balls, syphilis, the Black Death…
    btw, I did try to reply to your comment on ‘here by dragons’, but wordpress wouldn’t let me – perhaps blacklisted by 23thorns for subversion 😉

    • I am a serious fan of puns. I have a literary gift range and 23 and I spend many happy evenings snorting with laughter at our silliness: Tosltoyboy, Birdthong, The Secret Gardener peeks out from behind a tree, Foucoff is more obscure but less so when you add a rude picture of Foucault. I did get the dragoons one. It’s a keeper! If it was one of ours, I would have gone into canvas bag production immediately. It made me giggle. Thanks.

      • I have passed the thank you on to my husband, who I believe gets credit for that one. I’m not so quick with puns as he is, but Sue (who recommended tracylh and 23thorns blogs to me) and I did spend many a hilarious hour making up dreadful pseudonyms for the people in my phd. Alice Band (village hairdresser), Cliff Walker (countryside ranger)… I won’t go on. Good luck with the gift range.

      • Cliff Walker * snigger*. Thanks for the wishes. It is terrifying. I am spending the children’s education fund and our eldest is determined that it is to become the family business. He doesn’t want to be a fireman anymore; it’s all about the family business. The pressure!

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