Tale of 2 Spirochetes

A Tale of Two Spirochetes*

by Robert C. Bransfield, M.D.

*Virginia Sherr, M.D., F.A.PA. and Gregory Bach, D.O. are recognized for providing editorial review.

Mr. A was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1899 and developed a notorious reputation in organized crime during Prohibition. He was in Florida on 2/14/29 when seven members of a rival gang were killed in what became known as "The St. Valentine Day Massacre." He was imprisoned for tax evasion and prohibition violations.

While incarcerated in Alcatraz, he was diagnosed to have late stage syphilis with paresis. Once year after the diagnosis, he was released (1939). Two different physicians concluded, in 1946, that he had the mentality of a 12 year old child. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1947.

Mr. B was born in Austria in 1889. Reportedly, he had a large number of diffuse and non-specific medical and psychiatric symptoms. Pathological findings included abdominal spasms, belching, bloating, constipation, buzzing and ringing in his ears, heart problems, hypertension, urinary difficulties, frequent bladder infections, headaches, two episodes of "blindness", eye pain, hazy vision, Parkinson's syndrome, extreme paranoia, frequent hand washing, sexual inhibition, explosive rage, hypochondriasis, narcissism, depression, and anxiety. He clearly was homicidal. He committed suicide in a bunker in Berlin, Germany in 1945. Some speculated that he had syphilis, while others speculated that his father had syphilis. After reading his list of symptoms, it is obvious to ask whether some otherspirochetal disease may have been present?

The study of physical and mental disease from a historical perspective is an area of growing interest. How much impact has the microbe had upon the course of human history? Have microbes in any way contributed to crime and/or war?* We could speculate forever about who may have been inflicted and whether there was any causal link to their behavior, without any conclusive answers. A more important question, however, is how much impact the microbe will have upon the future?

Those possibly affected by syphilis include: Peter the Great; Napoleon; Stalin, and Idi Amin. Historically, the European aristocracy were treated for syphilis with silver, which caused a blue tinge to the blood resulting in the phrase, "blue blood."

From clinical experience, there is a clear link in some cases between aggression and infectious disease, which affects the brain. In some individuals, this may result in explosive rage, various acts of aggression, suicide, and homicide. These incidents are recognized to significantly impact upon a limited number of individuals, however the full social impact may not be fully appreciated until it affects powerful individuals.

Throughout history, soldiers often returned from war with new and unusual diseases which were sometimes acknowledged to have an infectious basis. Certain regions of the world are associated with a higher incidence of violence and social strife. Could microbes endemic to these regions contribute to violence? The Balkans, for example, have long been a region of social unrest. World War I began in Sarajevo, and many soldiers returning from the on-going military action in Bosnia returned with the European strain of Lyme disease. Lyme disease is prevalent throughout Europe, Eastern Europe, Russia, and other parts of the world.

Regardless of the cause of their aggressiveness, Al Capone and Adolf Hitler lived in an era when weapons were relatively unsophisticated, yet Hitler killed millions. Since his death, there has been frightening technical advances in biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. How long can we afford to ignore the link between infectious disease and violence?