Who didn’t have syphilis in Belle Epoque Paris? Nobody who was anybody — at least if you read Deborah Hayden’s book Pox: Genius, Madness and the Mysteries of Syphilis.

The disease had reached epidemic proportions in 19th century Europe, and before the production of penicillin in the 1940s, there was no effective cure. Paris in the 1890s, as the continent’s sex capital, was particularly hard hit: One French specialist in venereal diseases at the time estimated that 15 percent of the city’s adult population was infected, a level that anticipates today’s AIDS/HIV crisis. Amongst Parisian artists and writers, whose first sexual encounters were often with prostitutes and who disdained condoms, the level seems to have been much higher — the roll call of famous French syphilitics includes Gustave Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire, Guy de Maupassant, Eduoard Manet, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, and Paul Gaugin. The art dealer Theo van Gogh was… More…