Until the end of the Second World War, syphilis was a common sexually transmitted infection. This stigmatising infectious disease caused mental decline, paralysis and eventually death. The history of syphilis was given public attention because of ‘malaria therapy’, which had been applied from the First World War onwards in patients with paralytic dementia. In 1917, the Austrian physician Julius Wagner-Jauregg (1857-1940) induced fever in these patients by infecting them with malaria parasites; in 1927, he received the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the healing properties of malarial fever. One source, not cited anywhere, is an interview that the American bacteriologist and science writer/medical journalist Paul de Kruif conducted with Wagner-Jauregg in 1930. The reporting of this meeting, and De Kruif’s later involvement in the mechanical heat treatment of patients with syphilis, form the inspiration for this article. When penicillin became available, both treatments became obsolete.
Conflict of interest and financial support: none declared.