This is the week where the Nobel Prizes are announced in Sweden every year. The Nobel Prizes are given for Medicine/Physiology, Chemistry, Physics, Literature, Economics, and Peace to commemorate significant achievement in these areas of human pursuit. The prizes are funded by a fortune left behind by Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. Many prizes have been given for questionable discoveries (there are some real doozies in the early twentieth century with regards to Physics and numerous Peace prizes have been questioned), but the majority represent significant achievements for mankind.
The gentleman pictured above, Julius Wagner-Jauregg, received the prize in 1927 in Medicine, for what I feel is the most impressive feat. The official citation for the award is as follows, “for his discovery of the therapeutic value of malaria inoculation in the treatment of dementia paralytica.” You have to know that dementia paralytica is an old term for tertiary syphilis, or neurosyphilis. Yes, Wagner-Jauregg won the prize for treating syphilis by giving the patient another disease malaria. As is said in the presentation speech, “one must expel evil with evil.”
It is hard for us to imagine why this idea would even make sense, but we don’t live in the world of 1927 (and before). Syphilis came in Europe most likely as a passenger aboard Columbus’s return voyages, an unwelcome side effect of his sailors’ liberties with the natives of the Americas (The Columbian Origin Theory) and burned through Europe from then on. Even in the early twentieth century there was no completely effective or safe treatment available, only organo-arsenic compounds that were toxic and difficult to dose correctly. The idea of treating syphilis with malaria was born out of the twin facts that high fevers were caused by malaria (and deadly to syphilis) and that malaria was treatable. It seems weird to us, but to the people of the time suffering through the agony of malaria was preferable to untreatable syphilis. One has to wonder what types of solutions we will develop to treat the increasing incidence of drug-resistant STI now?