As printer, publisher and Founding Father, Franklin was involved in many scientific experiments and civic activities. He campaigned for smallpox vaccination and advocated exercise, a moderate diet and good hygiene.
He even participated in discrediting Franz Anton Mesmer, the medical charlatan who promoted animal magnetism. But did he have syphilis?
What is syphilis?
Syphilis is an infectious disease that’s caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. You get it by coming into direct contact with an infected person’s sore, usually during sexual activity. But the bacteria can also enter the body through cuts on the skin or through mucous membranes.
Syphilis goes through several stages. During the first stage, you may have no symptoms. This is called primary syphilis. In the second stage, you might have painful sores on your genitals or in other places on your body. You may also have a fever and swollen lymph nodes.
A syphilis infection can cause many medical problems. For example, it can lead to damage of your aorta (the largest blood vessel in your body) and heart valves. It can also increase your risk of HIV infection.
Untreated syphilis can have severe side effects, such as brain and eye damage. It can also increase your risk of having a miscarriage or having a baby that dies soon after birth, even if you’re in the first and third trimester of pregnancy.
In this stage, the bacterium Treponema pallidum causes a series of secondary sores and a rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. It can also affect the eyes and other parts of the body. This is when the disease starts to cause long-lasting health problems.
Once the primary and secondary stages are treated, most people are no longer contagious. However, they may develop tertiary syphilis, or latent syphilis, if they do not seek treatment. The infection can spread through sexual activity or even a kiss.
Although Benjamin Franklin was a well-known philanderer, the annals of history lack unyielding evidence of his syphilis struggles. He died in 1790 at the age of 84 from complications of gout and cataracts. His lungs, however, were swollen with an abscess. This is the reason he often spoke in whispers. Despite his health issues, the famous Philadelphian was still a spirited participant in life until his final moments.
During the tertiary stage of syphilis, granulomatous lesions called gummas develop in the skin and bones. These lesions contain different types of immune cells surrounded by fibrous tissue. During this phase of the disease, there is also damage to the spinal cord. Symptoms of this include a loss of vibration sensation and the ability to sense body position, which is called tabes dorsalis.
Many people who have the tertiary stage of yphilis suffer from severe and painful meningovascular syphilis, or inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. This can lead to a variety of symptoms, including dementia and psychosis. It can also cause brain inflammation, known as encephalitis. Franklin died from pneumonia and a chest infection, or empyema, brought on by attacks of pleurisy. He was 84 years old when he passed away. Throughout his life he suffered from gout and had pneumonia multiple times. He was also a notorious womanizer. However, there is no scholarly evidence that he had syphilis.
The annals of history have no scholarly evidence that Franklin had syphilis. Even if the disease had affected him, his health was otherwise robust. He displayed no telltale rashes or hair loss. He had an abundance of energy and engaged in his hobbies with gusto.
Congenital syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection passed from mother to baby during pregnancy or delivery, can cause severe and life-altering health problems in babies, including blindness, hearing loss, mental retardation and birth defects. Screening and treatment of women with syphilis and their sexual partners during prenatal care can prevent the spread of this disease to babies.
Benjamin Franklin was a womanizer during his lifetime and his affairs were the source of much gossip, but he never contracted an STD as a result of these relationships. He died on April 17, 1790 at the age of 84 from an attack of pleurisy and empyema, which caused pneumonia and a lung abscess.