During the course of their 2 ½ year journey, Lewis and Clark faced an enemy even more implacable than the Teton Sioux, the grizzly bear, and the dreaded mosquito. This was the Louis Veneri—also known as syphilis.
Syphilis was first identified as a disease three centuries earlier, when it burst upon the scene in Europe with sudden and shocking virulence. Its origins were (and still are) controversial. Syphilis exploded during the French invasion of Naples in 1495, decimating the French army and earning it the nickname, “the French disease.” However, the French army was heavily loaded with mercenaries from other European countries, including men who had sailed as part of Christopher Columbus’s crew just a few years earlier. It’s possible these men had become infected with the disease in the New World. The “Old World-New World” controversy rages to this day, with some scientists hypothesizing that syphilis was present in Europe as far back as ancient Greece and others believing it was a New World transplant.
At any rate, the strain of syphilis that hit Europe at the end of the 15th century was much more virulent than the disease is today. Unfortunate victims became covered with pustules from head to knees, suffered flu-like symptoms, and, as the disease began to affect the internal organs and central nervous system, declined and died within a few months. This extreme virulence had moderated by Lewis and Clark’s day, but the disease was recognized as a serious problem that needed careful treatment.
Lewis and Clark obviously anticipated that venereal disease might be a problem on the Upper Missouri River, and that their men would likely have sexual contact with native women. They packed the medicine chest with several drugs to help combat syphilis and gonorrhea, including mercury-laden calomel, copaiba, and mercury ointment. They were not disappointed. William Clark noted on October 12th of 1804 that the Sioux had a “curious custom,” as did the Arikara, which was “to give handsom squars to those whome they wish to Show some acknowledgements to.” Apparently the men of the Corps of Discovery were feeling modest, for Clark notes that they “got clare [clear]” of the Sioux “without taking their squars.” But by October 15, 1804, Clark recorded that the party had arrived at the Camp of the Arikara, and that “Their womin [were] verry fond of caressing our men &c.” By March of 1805 he noted that the men were “Generally helthy except Venerials Complaints which is very Common amongst the natives…and the men Catch it from them.”
Syphilis is caused by a variety of bacteria called a spirochete, which enters the body during sexual intercourse and penetrates the mucous membranes, infecting the blood or lymph system. It can incubate in the body for weeks or even months before the infected person manifests any symptoms. The first sign is usually a painless skin lesion at the site of the infection (often the genitals), followed by skin rashes, fever and fatigue, and aches and pains. Men and women who had contracted syphilis often had pustules or “pox” on the skin and were said to be “poxed.”
In the Corps of Discovery, as in the previous three centuries, the preferred treatment was mercury. According to David J. Peck in Or Perish in the Attempt, mercury is actually toxic to the bacterial organism that causes syphilis and can be moderately effective in treating syphilitic symptoms. The trouble is, it is also toxic to the patient that carries the disease. Peck suggests that when a man in the Corps complained of having the “Louis Veneri,” Lewis and Clark used mercury ointments applied topically for several weeks, or until the patient began to salivate. Physicians of the day believed that salivation was a sign that the disease was being expelled from the body. We know today that it is a sign of mercury poisoning.
Lewis recorded the incidences of venereal disease he found among the natives along their journey, along with the natives’ own remedies to cure the malady. He penned this journal entry at Fort Clatsop on January 27, 1806:
Goodrich has recovered from the Louis veneri which he contracted from an amorous contact with a Chinnook damsel. I cured him as I did Gibson last winter by the uce of murcury. I cannot learn that the Indians have any simples which are sovereign specifics in the cure of this disease; and indeed I doubt very much wheter any of them have any means of effecting a perfect cure. when once this disorder is contracted by them it continues with them during life; but always ends in decipitude, death, or premature old age; tho’ from the uce of certain simples together with their diet, they support this disorder with but little inconvenience for many years, and even enjoy a tolerable share of health; particularly so among the Chippeways who I believe to be better skilled in the uce of those simples than any nation of Savages in North America. The Chippeways use a decoction of the root of the Lobelia, and that of a species of sumac common to the Atlantic states and to this country near and on the Western side of the Rocky Mountains. this is the smallest species of the sumac, readily distinguished by it’s winged rib, or common footstalk, which supports it’s oppositely pinnate leaves. these decoctions are drank freely and without limitation. the same decoctions are used in cases of the gonnaerea and are effecatious and sovereign. notwithstanding that this disorder dose exist among the Indians on the Columbia yet it is witnessed in but fiew individuals, at least the males who are always sufficiently exposed to the observations or inspection of the phisician. in my whole rout down this river I did not see more than two or three with the gonnaerea and about double that number with the pox.—
Lewis and Clark did realize the terrible progression of the disease if left untreated, thus they took it seriously. Mercury was freely given, though apparently not in lethal does. In 2002, archeologists were able to pinpoint the location of Travelers Rest, Lewis and Clark’s campsite of September 1805 and June-July 1806, because of the mercury deposits found in the soil there.
Syphilis is still a dangerous disease today, but can be effectively cured with penicillin and other antibiotics. Syphilis was at the center of the most notorious biomedical health study ever conducted in the United States, in which the U.S. Public Health service withheld penicillin from a group of infected African-American sharecroppers in Tuskegee, Alabama for decades, in order to study the long term progression of untreated syphilis.
There has been some speculation, notably by epidemiologist Reinhardt Ravenholt, that Meriwether Lewis himself may have acquired syphilis during his journey to the Pacific, and that this disease led to Lewis’s mental illness and eventual suicide. Other historians disagree, believing Lewis’s physical illness and depression could have resulted from malaria or other causes. You can read Dr. Ravenholt’s article here.