Trading syphilis for malaria: How doctors treated one deadly disease by infecting patients with another
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
If you had lived one hundred years ago, syphilis – a bacterial infection spread by sexual contact – would likely have been one of your worst nightmares. Even though syphilis still exists, it can now be detected early and cured quickly with a course of antibiotics. Back then, however, before antibiotics and without an easy way to detect the disease, syphilis was very often a death sentence.
To understand how feared syphilis once was, it’s important to understand exactly what it does if it’s allowed to progress: the infections start off as small, painless sores or even a single sore near the vagina, penis, anus, or mouth. The sores disappear around three to six weeks after the initial infection – but untreated, syphilis moves into a secondary stage, often presenting as a mild rash in various areas of the body (such as the palms of a person’s hands) or through other minor symptoms. The disease progresses from there, often quietly and without noticeable symptoms, sometimes for decades before it reaches its final stages, where it can cause blindness, organ damage, and even dementia. Research indicates, in fact, that as much as 10 percent of psychiatric admissions in the early 20th century were due to dementia caused by syphilis, also known as neurosyphilis.
Like any bacterial disease, syphilis can affect kids, too. Though it’s spread primarily through sexual contact, it can also be transmitted from mother to child during birth, causing lifelong disability.
The poet-physician Aldabert Bettman, who wrote fictionalized poems based on his experiences as a doctor in the 1930s, described the effect syphilis could have on an infant in his poem Daniel Healy:
I always got away clean
when I went out
With the boys.
The night before
I was married
I went out,—But was not so fortunate;
And I infected
When little Daniel
His eyes discharged;
And I dared not tell
I had seen too much
Little Daniel sees not at all
Given the horrors of untreated syphilis, it’s maybe not surprising that people would go to extremes to try and treat it. One of the earliest remedies for syphilis, dating back to 15th century Naples, was using mercury – either rubbing it on the skin where blisters appeared, or breathing it in as a vapor. (Not surprisingly, many people who underwent this type of “treatment” died of mercury poisoning.)
Other primitive treatments included using tinctures made of a flowering plant called guaiacum, as well as inducing “sweat baths” to eliminate the syphilitic toxins. In 1910, an arsenic-based drug called Salvarsan hit the market and was hailed as a “magic bullet” for its ability to target and destroy the syphilis-causing bacteria without harming the patient. However, while Salvarsan was effective in treating early-stage syphilis, it was largely ineffective by the time the infection progressed beyond the second stage. Tens of thousands of people each year continued to die of syphilis or were otherwise shipped off to psychiatric wards due to neurosyphilis.
It was in one of these psychiatric units in the early 20th century that Dr. Julius Wagner-Juaregg got the idea for a potential cure.
Wagner-Juaregg was an Austrian-born physician trained in “experimental pathology” at the University of Vienna. Wagner-Juaregg started his medical career conducting lab experiments on animals and then moved on to work at different psychiatric clinics in Vienna, despite having no training in psychiatry or neurology.
Wagner-Juaregg’s work was controversial to say the least. At the time, medicine – particularly psychiatric medicine – did not have anywhere near the same rigorous ethical standards that doctors, researchers, and other scientists are bound to today. Wagner-Juaregg would devise wild theories about the cause of their psychiatric ailments and then perform experimental procedures in an attempt to cure them. (As just one example, Wagner-Juaregg would sterilize his adolescent male patients, thinking “excessive masturbation” was the cause of their schizophrenia.)
But sometimes these wild theories paid off. In 1883, during his residency, Wagner-Juaregg noted that a female patient with mental illness who had contracted a skin infection and suffered a high fever experienced a sudden (and seemingly miraculous) remission from her psychosis symptoms after the fever had cleared. Wagner-Juaregg theorized that inducing a high fever in his patients with neurosyphilis could help them recover as well.
Eventually, Wagner-Juaregg was able to put his theory to the test. Around 1890, Wagner-Juaregg got his hands on something called tuberculin, a therapeutic treatment created by the German microbiologist Robert Koch in order to cure tuberculosis. Tuberculin would later turn out to be completely ineffective for treating tuberculosis, often creating severe immune responses in patients – but for a short time, Wagner-Juaregg had some success in using tuberculin to help his dementia patients. Giving his patients tuberculin resulted in a high fever – and after completing the treatment, Wagner-Jauregg reported that his patient’s dementia was completely halted. The success was short-lived, however: Wagner-Juaregg eventually had to discontinue tuberculin as a treatment, as it began to be considered too toxic.
By 1917, Wagner-Juaregg’s theory about syphilis and fevers was becoming more credible – and one day a new opportunity presented itself when a wounded soldier, stricken with malaria and a related fever, was accidentally admitted to his psychiatric unit.
When his findings were published in 1918, Wagner-Juaregg’s so-called “fever therapy” swept the globe.
What Wagner-Juaregg did next was ethically deplorable by any standard: Before he allowed the soldier any quinine (the standard treatment for malaria at the time), Wagner-Juaregg took a small sample of the soldier’s blood and inoculated three syphilis patients with the sample, rubbing the blood on their open syphilitic blisters.
It’s unclear how well the malaria treatment worked for those three specific patients – but Wagner-Juaregg’s records show that in the span of one year, he inoculated a total of nine patients with malaria, for the sole purpose of inducing fevers, and six of them made a full recovery. Wagner-Juaregg’s treatment was so successful, in fact, that one of his inoculated patients, an actor who was unable to work due to his dementia, was eventually able to find work again and return to the stage. Two additional patients – a military officer and a clerk – recovered from their once-terminal illnesses and returned to their former careers as well.
When his findings were published in 1918, Wagner-Juaregg’s so-called “fever therapy” swept the globe. The treatment was hailed as a breakthrough – but it still had risks. Malaria itself had a mortality rate of about 15 percent at the time. Many people considered that to be a gamble worth taking, compared to dying a painful, protracted death from syphilis.
Malaria could also be effectively treated much of the time with quinine, whereas other fever-causing illnesses were not so easily treated. Triggering a fever by way of malaria specifically, therefore, became the standard of care.
Tens of thousands of people with syphilitic dementia would go on to be treated with fever therapy until the early 1940s, when a combination of Salvarsan and penicillin caused syphilis infections to decline. Eventually, neurosyphilis became rare, and then nearly unheard of.
Despite his contributions to medicine, it’s important to note that Wagner-Juaregg was most definitely not a person to idolize. In fact, he was an outspoken anti-Semite and proponent of eugenics, arguing that Jews were more prone to mental illness and that people who were mentally ill should be forcibly sterilized. (Wagner-Juaregg later became a Nazi sympathizer during Hitler’s rise to power even though, bizarrely, his first wife was Jewish.) Another problematic issue was that his fever therapy involved experimental treatments on many who, due to their cognitive issues, could not give informed consent.
Lack of consent was also a fundamental problem with the syphilis study at Tuskegee, appalling research that began just 14 years after Wagner-Juaregg published his “fever therapy” findings.
Still, despite his outrageous views, Wagner-Juaregg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1927 – and despite some egregious human rights abuses, the miraculous “fever therapy” was partly responsible for taming one of the deadliest plagues in human history.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio of this episode improves about 10 minutes in. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/
For generations, the Indigenous Tjupan people of Australia enjoyed the sweet treat of honey made by honeypot ants. As a favorite pastime, entire families would go searching for the underground colonies, first spotting a worker ant and then tracing it to its home. The ants, which belong to the species called Camponotus inflatus, usually build their subterranean homes near the mulga trees, Acacia aneura. Having traced an ant to its tree, it would be the women who carefully dug a pit next to a colony, cautious not to destroy the entire structure. Once the ant chambers were exposed, the women would harvest a small amount to avoid devastating the colony’s stocks—and the family would share the treat.
The Tjupan people also knew that the honey had antimicrobial properties. “You could use it for a sore throat,” says Danny Ulrich, a member of the Tjupan nation. “You could also use it topically, on cuts and things like that.”
These hunts have become rarer, as many of the Tjupan people have moved away and, up until now, the exact antimicrobial properties of the ant honey remained unknown. But recently, scientists Andrew Dong and Kenya Fernandes from the University of Sydney, joined Ulrich, who runs the Honeypot Ants tours in Kalgoorlie, a city in Western Australia, on a honey-gathering expedition. Afterwards, they ran a series of experiments analyzing the honey’s antimicrobial activity—and confirmed that the Indigenous wisdom was true. The honey was effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a common pathogen responsible for sore throats, skin infections like boils and sores, and also sepsis, which can result in death. Moreover, the honey also worked against two species of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus, which can be pathogenic to humans, especially those with suppressed immune systems.
In the era of growing antibiotic resistance and the rising threat of pathogenic fungi, these findings may help scientists identify and make new antimicrobial compounds. “Natural products have been honed over thousands and millions of years by nature and evolution,” says Fernandes. “And some of them have complex and intricate properties that make them really important as potential new antibiotics. “
In an era of growing resistance to antibiotics and new threats of fungi infections, the latest findings about honeypot ants are helping scientists identify new antimicrobial drugs.
Bee honey is also known for its antimicrobial properties, but bees produce it very differently than the ants. Bees collect nectar from flowers, which they regurgitate at the hive and pack into the hexagonal honeycombs they build for storage. As they do so, they also add into the mix an enzyme called glucose oxidase produced by their glands. The enzyme converts atmospheric oxygen into hydrogen peroxide, a reactive molecule that destroys bacteria and acts as a natural preservative. After the bees pack the honey into the honeycombs, they fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. Once a honeycomb is full, the bees put a beeswax cover on it, where it stays well-preserved thanks to the enzymatic action, until the bees need it.
Less is known about the chemistry of ants’ honey-making. Similarly to bees, they collect nectar. They also collect the sweet sap of the mulga tree. Additionally, they also “milk” the aphids—small sap-sucking insects that live on the tree. When ants tickle the aphids with their antennae, the latter release a sweet substance, which the former also transfer to their colonies. That’s where the honey management difference becomes really pronounced. The ants don’t build any kind of structures to store their honey. Instead, they store it in themselves.
The workers feed their harvest to their fellow ants called repletes, stuffing them up to the point that their swollen bellies outgrow the ants themselves, looking like amber-colored honeypots—hence the name. Because of their size, repletes don’t move, but hang down from the chamber’s ceiling, acting as living feedstocks. When food becomes scarce, they regurgitate their reserves to their colony’s brethren. It’s not clear whether the repletes die afterwards or can be restuffed again. “That's a good question,” Dong says. “After they've been stretched, they can't really return to exactly the same shape.”
These replete ants are the “treat” the Tjupan women dug for. Once they saw the round-belly ants inside the chambers, they would reach in carefully and get a few scoops of them. “You see a lot of honeypot ants just hanging on the roof of the little openings,” says Ulrich’s mother, Edie Ulrich. The women would share the ants with family members who would eat them one by one. “They're very delicate,” shares Edie Ulrich—you have to take them out carefully, so they don’t accidentally pop and become a wasted resource. “Because you’d lose all this precious honey.”
Dong stumbled upon the honeypot ants phenomenon because he was interested in Indigenous foods and went on Ulrich’s tour. He quickly became fascinated with the insects and their role in the Indigenous culture. “The honeypot ants are culturally revered by the Indigenous people,” he says. Eventually he decided to test out the honey’s medicinal qualities.
The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus.
To do this, the two scientists first diluted the ant honey with water. “We used something called doubling dilutions, which means that we made 32 percent dilutions, and then we halve that to 16 percent and then we half that to eight percent,” explains Fernandes. The goal was to obtain as much results as possible with the meager honey they had. “We had very, very little of the honeypot ant honey so we wanted to maximize the spectrum of results we can get without wasting too much of the sample.”
After that, the researchers grew different microbes inside a nutrient rich broth. They added the broth to the different honey dilutions and incubated the mixes for a day or two at the temperature favorable to the germs’ growth. If the resulting solution turned turbid, it was a sign that the bugs proliferated. If it stayed clear, it meant that the honey destroyed them. The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus. “It was really quite amazing,” Fernandes says. “Eight milliliters of honey in 92 milliliters of water is a really tiny amount of honey compared to the amount of water.”
Similar to bee honey, the ants’ honey exhibited some peroxide antimicrobial activity, researchers found, but given how little peroxide was in the solution, they think the honey also kills germs by a different mechanism. “When we measured, we found that [the solution] did have some hydrogen peroxide, but it didn't have as much of it as we would expect based on how active it was,” Fernandes says. “Whether this hydrogen peroxide also comes from glucose oxidase or whether it's produced by another source, we don't really know,” she adds. The research team does have some hypotheses about the identity of this other germ-killing agent. “We think it is most likely some kind of antimicrobial peptide that is actually coming from the ant itself.”
The honey also has a very strong activity against the two types of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus. Both fungi are associated with trees and decaying leaves, as well as in the soils where ants live, so the insects likely have evolved some natural defense compounds, which end up inside the honey.
It wouldn’t be the first time when modern medicines take their origin from the natural world or from the indigenous people’s knowledge. The bark of the cinchona tree native to South America contains quinine, a substance that treats malaria. The Indigenous people of the Andes used the bark to quell fever and chills for generations, and when Europeans began to fall ill with malaria in the Amazon rainforest, they learned to use that medicine from the Andean people.
The wonder drug aspirin similarly takes its origin from a bark of a tree—in this case a willow.
Even some anticancer compounds originated from nature. A chemotherapy drug called Paclitaxel, was originally extracted from the Pacific yew trees, Taxus brevifolia. The samples of the Pacific yew bark were first collected in 1962 by researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture who were looking for natural compounds that might have anti-tumor activity. In December 1992, the FDA approved Paclitaxel (brand name Taxol) for the treatment of ovarian cancer and two years later for breast cancer.
In the era when the world is struggling to find new medicines fast enough to subvert a fungal or bacterial pandemic, these discoveries can pave the way to new therapeutics. “I think it's really important to listen to indigenous cultures and to take their knowledge because they have been using these sources for a really, really long time,” Fernandes says. Now we know it works, so science can elucidate the molecular mechanisms behind it, she adds. “And maybe it can even provide a lead for us to develop some kind of new treatments in the future.”
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.