On March 3, 1905, German zoologist Fritz Schaudinn together with dermatologist Erich Hoffmann discovered the causative agent of syphilis, the spiral-shaped Spirochaeta pallida, at Berlin Charité Clinic.
The origin of syphilis is not very clear, but it is assumed that it was present in the Americas before European contact. Many historical scientists assume, that the illness was carried to Europe by the returning crewmen from Christopher Columbus’s voyage. Others dispute, that syphilis was already present in Europe by then but stayed unrecognized until Columbus’ return. The first known cases of syphilis in Europe were recorded around 1495 in Italy and were spread by the French troops during a French invasion. Therefore, the illness was named the “French Disease”.
While studying nature sciences, Fritz Schaudinn was inspired very early by Franz Eilhard Schulze, a well known zoologist himself, to research protozoans. Many protozoan species are symbionts, some are predators of soil bacteria and algae, and some are parasites that may cause diseases like Malaria, Toxoplasmosis or Dysentery. Schaudinn published his dissertation on the reproduction of foraminifera in 1894 and was announced assistant at the Zoological Institute at the University of Berlin.
About four years later, the young scientist took part in an expedition to the Arctic Ocean along with Fritz Römer. As a result of the scientific expedition, Schaudinn published the work ‘Fauna Arctica’, a detailed description of the Arctic wildlife. After this achievement, Schaudinn was announced the director of the Malaria research station in Rovigne (Istria) since Germany intended to expand research on tropical diseases. Even though several achievements considering the Malaria disease by Schaudinn were wrong from today’s perspective, they were accepted for several decades and counted as an important influence on the control of the illness. Under Schaudinn’s leadership, several campaigns fighting Malaria were initiated and the treatment of many numerous people was made possible.
In the early 1900s, Fritz Schaudinn returned to Berlin and was asked to verify the findings of John Siegel, who claimed to have found the causative agent of syphilis. After some days of work however, Schaudinn discovered the disease’s real causative agent along with the dermatologist Erich Hoffmann under the microscope. Unfortunately, Schaudinn’s reputation in Germany was not as good as in foreign countries, wherefore his results were not taken for granted in his home country. In other countries however, Schaudinn’s research results were verified and his reputation increased dramatically. The first effective treatment was developed in 1910 by the physician and scientist Paul Ehrlich.
At yovisto, you may be interested in a Hollywood-produced melodramatic short that deals with prophylaxis, diagnosis and clinical treatment of syphilis
References and Further Reading:
- Schaudinn at Britannica
- Thorburn, A L (December 1971). “Fritz Richard Schaudinn, 1871–1906: protozoologist of syphilis”