Tertiary Syphilis Invades your Television

Thomas Eichhorst covers his disfigurements. Image via FX

It's syphilis week at Stuff to Blow Your Mind.

That's right, both this week's podcast episodes explore the fascinating science, culture and history of this most monstrous of venereal diseases. Plus, in addition to last week's Monster of the Week post on the link between syphilis and vampirism, we have a number of blog posts publishing on the topic.

If you're on the fence about syphilis as a truly mind-blowing topic, I urge you to join us nonetheless. The biology of syphilis alone is quite engrossing and its effect on nearly 500 years of Western history cannot be overstated.

Case in point, just look at two recent examples of syphilis on your Sunday night television.

The Knick

First up, the third episode of Steven Soderbergh's "The Knick" aired on Cinemax Friday night and once more it delivered top-notch episodic cinema.

As featured on "The Knick," click for more. (Image via Cinemax)

Starring Clive Owen, the show centers around the tumultuous lives of the staff and patients at a 1900 New York City hospital. And while your mind might instantly turn to dreary BBC period pieces, "The Knick" achieves something more through stellar cinematography and an electronic soundtrack by Cliff Martinez ("Drive," "Spring Breakers").

Sunday's episode introduced a female patient (Jennifer Ferrin), suffering from the disfiguring effects of tertiary syphilis. Having lost her nose to the illness and suffering from intense light sensitivity, she wears a false metal nose and shades as she visits the Knick for treatment. The recommended surgical procedure is actually a topic a discussion on this Thursday's podcast episode, "Syphilis Through the Ages."


The Strain

Meanwhile on FX, Guillermo del Toro's "The Strain" continues to wow us with monsters. The show's vampires are amazing, emerging as a kind of grotesque conglomerate of real-world parasites and infectious disease.

Just as syphilis may have informed our original notions of the Western vampire, the vampires of "The Strain" also echo the dreaded "French disease," disfiguring the face and genitals. The villainous Thomas Eichhorst (Richard Sammel) serves as a prime example of this, donning a false nose to cover his gaping nostril slits when moving among the human population. In this, the show's vampirism strongly resembles tertiary syphilis.

We continue to live in the shadow of syphilis. Stick with us this week as we explore the topic in-depth.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.