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by Deborah Hayden
Basic Books, 2003
Review by S. V. Swamy on Jan 4th 2004

Pox

Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis by Deborah Hayden reached me for review, not by my choice, but because my editor thought that I would like it because of my interest in health and psychology. Well, I did like it, for its contribution to my understanding of a disease, normally kept under wraps, syphilis. Because of its mode of transmission, syphilis, like other STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) is not discussed in public. Thus it is not surprising that biographers also did not publicly label the person about whom they are writing as syphilitic.

That leaves the field wide open for post-mortem speculation, since the person, long dead, cannot defend his/her (mostly his) reputation.

Deborah Hayden is a layperson, who gained a lot of knowledge about the disease from extensive reading. Whether she is an objective skilled biographer is another point, which I can't answer positively. She has dug a lot of information about each personality that she chose to cover in Pox and tried to fit them into the straight jacket of syphilis, which she assures us is a great mimic (of all other diseases), and which, she claims is not ruled out even in a negative Wasserman Test. Then, anyone and everyone could be labeled a syphilitic.

Pox deals with questions such as whether Lincoln and Hitler had that disease, whether the great Beethoven and Vincent van Gogh etc., were great because of the gift of syphilis, a gift, which is double-edged, since it first increased their creative madness, before sending them to an early grave from several complications. Even where the earlier biographers or medical investigators did not come up with the definitive diagnosis of syphilis, Hayden raises the question. And since it cannot be disproved, that leaves the reader wondering, what is the purpose?

I would recommend the book to the average lay reader only for one thing. If you are interested in understanding syphilis, this is a good place to start, although a rather high priced introduction. But not much pricier than the lack of knowledge. And yes, the book will appeal to those who have a taste for the odd, who are interested in reading about the famous. I could only think of one thing when I finished the book, fame did not prevent infection.

It is definitely not a book for the squeamish or the prudish, or easily offended moralists. And it is not easy or interesting to read either.

 

 

2004 S. V. Swamy

  

S. V. Swamy, India.