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Pox: Genius, Madness, And Mysteries Of Syphilis

Pox: Genius, Madness, And Mysteries Of Syphilis

4.3 3
by Deb Hayden, Trish Wilkinson (Designed by)

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


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 of the "Pox" on the lives and works of world figures from the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries. Writing with remarkable insight and narrative flair, Hayden argues that biographers and historians have vastly underestimated the influence of what Thomas Mann called "this exhilarating yet wasting disease." Shrouded in secrecy, syphilis was accompanied by wild euphoria and suicidal depression, megalomania and paranoia, profoundly affecting sufferers' worldview, their sexual behavior and personality, and, of course, their art. Deeply informed and courageously argued, Pox has already been heralded as a major contribution to our understanding of genius, madness, and creativity.

Editorial Reviews

Peter Byrne
Breaks ground in the field...Hayden presents 15 historical celebrities, including Beethoven, Nietzsche, Lincoln, and her pièce de résistance, Hitler!
S.F. Weekly
Publishers Weekly
Were Abraham and Mary Lincoln's well-known health problems symptoms of syphilis? Was Adolf Hitler's final descent into madness due to an early syphilitic infection acquired from a prostitute? Did James Joyce make hidden allusions to his own infection in works like Ulysses? According to Hayden, a California-based scholar and marketing executive, scholars and medical professionals have too often overlooked the evidence of "pox," or syphilis-often called the "Great Imitator" because its symptoms mimic those of many other diseases-in the biographies of historical figures. Few would argue that some of Hayden's subjects, like Flaubert and Karen Blixen (subject of the movie Out of Africa), suffered from the disease. Her arguments for others, like the Lincolns and Beethoven, are sure to provoke debate. Hayden pulls together fascinating medical histories for figures like President Lincoln and Hitler, but with Mary Lincoln in particular her background documentation seems spotty. She overlooks Mary's vigorous, and very sane, campaign to be released from the mental institution that her son Robert had her committed to. Hayden suffers from an unfortunate tendency to romanticize the final stages of syphilis: she claims repeatedly that artists attain some sort of mystical breakthrough in their art when they're on the verge of paralytic collapse, an assertion straight out of Thomas Mann and other early 20th-century writers. The sprawling chapter on Hitler is the climax of the book but suffers from poor organization and loose writing. Readers will be divided on whether or not they are convinced by Hayden's arguments, but with the reemergence of syphilis in many urban populations, the subject is sure to attract attention. (Jan.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Independent scholar Hayden has written a fascinating account of the role that syphilis may have played in the lives of noted historical Western figures from Columbus to Hitler. Over the course of five centuries, the author shows how their lives coincided, respectively, with the disease's epidemic rise in Europe and the discovery of penicillin, which successfully treated it. She also profiles composers such as Beethoven and Schubert; writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Wilde, Joyce, and Karen Blixen; and other luminaries from van Gogh to Nietzsche. For each individual, she outlines the evidence of syphilis and its effects, as well as noting how previous biographers have dealt with-or missed-this evidence. Hayden's book is well documented and includes an important chapter called "The Fragile Art of Retrospective Diagnosis." This technique is provocative-and necessary; as Hayden notes, over the centuries people were silent about syphilis or spoke or wrote about it only in code. Despite the scholarly apparatus, this title is recommended for most academic and public libraries. Any book combining genius, madness, sex, and disease is bound to find an audience.-A.J. Wright, Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham Lib. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The Great Pox, commonly known as the clap, is given a clinical but—how could it be otherwise?—morbidly fascinating historical profile by independent scholar Hayden, who proceeds to do some medical detective work in identifying famous people who may have carried the spirochete to their graves. The nasty little parasite entered the history books, Hayden conjectures (with evidence), when Columbus returned from the New World and launched the European syphilis epidemic of 1493. (The lepers thought the syphilitics smelled so bad they wouldn’t have them in their neighborhoods.) Left untreated, as it essentially was until penicillin, syphilis is a chronic, inflammatory, relapsing disease that goes into hiding throughout the body—brain, eyes, temporal arteries—after the initial sores disappear. It then reasserts itself by delivering severe headaches and gastrointestinal pains, blindness and deafness, paralysis, and insanity, yet sometimes also ecstasy and fierce creativity. Hayden traces attempts to counteract the disease—which, since methods included dousing with mercury, arsenic, and bismuth, were equally terrible (and ineffective)—in a voice both serious and wonderfully understated: one of the "warning signs" of tertiary syphilis, she explains, is the sensation of being serenaded by angels. After the cultural and medical groundwork has been laid, Hayden asks "delicate questions" about a number of historical figures. She examines the possibility that Beethoven and van Gogh were victims—possible cases that are hotly contested. It would be a miracle if Flaubert didn't have syphilis, and in Oscar Wilde’s case, he said and did so many bizarre things that’s it’s hard to judge. Hayden presents thefacts and lets the readers decide whether Nietzsche, Baronness Blixen, Schubert, Baudelaire, and Hitler may have been candidates. Pox is free of judgment, but the reader can’t help but feel that safe sex never seemed a better idea. (Illustrations)

Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.60(w) x 9.66(h) x 1.34(d)

Meet the Author

Deborah Hayden, an independent scholar and marketing executive, has lectured on syphilis and creativity, most recently at UCSF Medical School, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Bay Area History of Medicine Society. She lives in Mill Valley, California.

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Pox: Genius, Madness, And Mysteries Of Syphilis 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A self-proclaimed 'scholar' with no medical training has written a titillating book about a very complex disease. As an example, while the accounts, for instance, of Schubert¿s and Schumann's deaths are fascinating, her belief that they were victims of syphilis is unproven and in fact, sheer speculation. Her inclusion of many famous individuals seems calculated to sell books; her premise seems to be that if these famous people were sick a lot and a bit crazy at the end, they undoubtedly had syphilis!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the best book I have read this year, and probably the best book I have read in five years. Not only is the information critical for understanding a number of historical personages, but Hayden's writing is stimulating. Her words work their way through your system the same compelling way syphilis worked its way through such a huge portion of the population until the development of penicillin. That is, her message can't be ignored. The need for society to put syphilis in the closet is surely as strong a statement as the impact of the infection itself on genius, madness, and creativity. I highly recommend this book both for its content and for the joy of reading a brilliant author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Pox is an astounding book. a superb book of medical detection - in which the author, a sleuth and scholar of the highest level, uncovers how syphilis has laid low some of the greatest figures of the last two centuries: many of our greatest creators (Joyce, Van Gogh, Beethoven, Schumann, Flaubert) Statesmen (Abraham Lincoln) Explorers (Columbus) and destroyers (Adolf Hitler.) A well researched, engaging, and wonderfully written book. A must read. from San Francisco reader.