Medical research in the twentieth century mostly takes place in the lab; in the Renaissance, though, researchers went first and foremost to the library to see what the ancients had said.

— Peter Lewis Allen

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Perhaps more than any other disease before or since, syphilis in early modern Europe provoked the kind of widespread moral panic that AIDS revived when it struck America in the 1980s.

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Often, city fathers blamed prostitutes for the disease, and some threatened to brand their cheeks with hot iron if they did not desist from their vices.

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Even more than this, however, the sick - like lepers - were often reviled because people believed that they had brought their torments upon themselves.

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The idea of infection began to be taken far more seriously than it ever had before. Hospitals transformed themselves in response to the new plague - sometimes for the better, but often for the worse, as when, in fear, they cast their ulcerated patients out into the streets.

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Was this an old disease, and, if so, which one? If it was new, what did that say about the state of medical knowledge? And in any case, how could physicians make sense of it?

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Shortly after Christopher Columbus and his sailors returned from their voyage to the New World, a horrifying new disease began to make its way around the Old. The "pox," as it was often called, erupted with dramatic severity.

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