Neurosyphilis and Some of Its Famous Victims
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Neurosyphilis and Some of Its Famous Victims

Before peniciline, syphilis was a scourge of society. Several famous men have been affected by the disease. This article tells the story of three of them, Daudet, de Maupassant and Nietzsche.

Sign of the Times

Some diseases are remarkably bound to a certain period in history. The same with syphilis, a sexually transmittable disease which wreaked havoc until the 1940’s when penicillin was discovered and used as medicine. Several famous men suffered greatly from this disease, including writers Guy de Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet, Leo Tolstoy and Heinrich Heine, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and a number of composers including Hugo Wolf. It is even thought that Vladimir Lenin might have suffered from this illness as well.

In some cases, it stayed manageable, but in others all three stages of the disease were experienced, with severe consequences. This happened, among others, to Guy de Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet and Friedrich Nietzsche, who all went through the different stages. First, a painless skin ulcer. Then chronic pain, and eventually neurosyphilis, where the brain is affected. In Daudet, this led to tabes dorsalis, damage of the nerve cells in the spinal cord resulting in excruciating pain and coordination difficulties. In Nietzsche and de Maupassant, who both ended up in an institution, this stage manifested in the form of paralysis and hallucination.

Friedrich Nietzsche

One of the most influential philosophers in human history, Friedrich Nietzsche spent his final years in utter agony and bewilderment. Near the end, he believed his urine contained diamonds and jewels. He wailed and licked the walls of his room. He is also known to drink his urine and cover the walls of his room with his own feces. Until his death, on August 25th 1900, he suffered from hallucinations.

Alphonse Daudet

The French writer Alphonse Daudet was a notorious womanizer. Until the disease hit. To him, syphilis meant a descent into pain and loneliness. The damage to his central nervous system led to terrible pain, coordination problems and paralysis. He described his agony in the posthumously published work La Doulou (in English published as The Land of Pain). Morphine and other treatments brought no relief. Only the escape into his imagination and fiction brought temporary solace, until he died on December 16th 1897.

Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant was a prolific French writer, often considered to be the father of the short story. He was naturally drawn to solitude and contemplation, which got a lot worse when the syphilis struck. His desire for solitude was complemented by an obsessive quest for self-preservation, tremendous fear of death and extreme paranoia. The progression of the disease led to his death on July 6th 1893.


  • Bogouslavssky, J. (2010). Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists. Karger Medical and Scientific Pulishers.
  • Lerner, V.; Finkelstein, Y. & Witzum, E. (2004). The enigma of Lenin’s (1870 – 1924) malady. European Journal of Neurology. 11(6), pp. 371 – 376.

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Comments (2)

wow this is so interesting, I voted and tweeted, I never knew any of this,

Thanks for the first hand issue.