FRANCE — Francois Joseph Victor Broussais was France's preeminent physician at the start of the nineteenth century. Although bloodletting by leeches had already enjoyed a long history in the developing art of medicine, it was Broussais who first promoted the lowly leech as nature's most sublime cure-all.

He believed that the parasites were able to suck all harmful humors from the human body. Sadly but inevitably, however, the failure of a very bold and very public experiment to forever vindicate Broussais' theory marked the beginning of the end of the use of bloodletting as a serious medical remedy. The red sores were merely a "local" infection; the truly dangerous disease lay in the intestines and could be sucked out by leeches.

Broussais was so highly regarded, and the theory of humors so ingrained, that leech therapy led to the death of his star pupil. The young student, to prove the effectiveness of his mentor's treatment, inoculated himself in the arm with fresh syphilitic pus containing the active organism. (This was done in front of an audience.) Within days he bore the unmistakable skin lesions that characterize the first stage of the disease. According to Broussais, the red sores were merely a "local" infection; the truly dangerous disease lay in the intestines and could be sucked out by leeches.

The trusting student submitted to copious bloodletting (by leeches and by opening veins), but the chancres refused to heal. As they grew larger and ruptured, lymph glands in his armpits, groin, and along the clavicle swelled. Within weeks of the experiment, the student was a mass of pustulating syphilitic lesions. With his belief in medicine shattered and his prognosis dire, he committed suicide.


Broussais' hapless pupil certainly was not the only victim of experimentation with venereal diseases, perhaps not even the first. Renowned eighteenth-century surgeon John Hunter sought to prove that the apparently different manifestations of gonorrhea could be explained by the site whereat the 'poison' entered the body. He therefore injected himself with pus from an infected man.

Unbeknownst to the brave doctor, however, the donor of the 'poison' was also suffering from syphilis, and the results of the experiment were "misleading and unfortunate." The results were misleading because, for the previous three centuries, from the time syphilis appeared in Europe to the time of Hunter's experiment, syphilis and gonorrhea were mistakenly thought to be one and the same disease. This misconception was at the very basis of Hunter's hypothesis. The experiment was unfortunate because, of course, Hunter died in 1793 from the later effects of his syphilitic infection. Alas, high is the price of knowledge ...

Ironically, in that same year, Dr. Benjamin Bell proved that there were two distinct diseases by carrying out experiments on his medical students. Near the end of the century, the gonococcus organism was finally isolated, and it was soon possible to prove, again by injecting it into people, that it was indeed the source of the disease. But not until the mid-1930s would the treatment of gonorrhea reach a scientific level.