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A Review of Syphilis Through Historical Art and Fashion for Teaching

Purpose: A review of early modern era paintings depicting characteristic signs of syphilis and its influence on fashion for potential use in an innovative teaching curriculum.


Background: The rate of syphilis in all US women doubled from 2012 to 2018 with a concomitant tripling of congenital syphilis cases. This dramatic resurgence reinforces the importance of clinically identifying signs of syphilis for educating healthcare providers. Visual aids and art analysis have been shown to be effective teaching tools.


Methods: Early modern era paintings depicting different stages of syphilis and fashion that was popularized in response to its physical manifestations were identified and analyzed through literature review.


Results: Paintings reviewed: 

1) Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse, Rembrandt van Rijn. Sequelae of late congenital syphilis. 

2) The medical inspection, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Sex workers examined for the painless chancre of the primary stage. 

3) The Inheritance, Edvard Munch. Mother and child with early congenital syphilis. 

4) Henry III of France, Jean de Court. Gummas, head and neck lesions of the tertiary stage, were often concealed by a ruff collar. 

5) Portrait of Charles II of England, Godfrey Kneller. Patchy alopecia often hidden by periwigs.

6) Portrait of two men with gloves, Cornelis de Vos. Palmar maculopapular rash prompted glove use to prevent transmission.


Discussions: Early modern era paintings featuring syphilis may be used as visual aids to educate healthcare providers. Innovative use of artwork in medical education may be more effective than text alone and can lead to higher retention of clinical knowledge.

Topics: CREOG & APGO Annual Meeting, 2021, Student, Resident, Faculty, Clerkship Director, Residency Director, Patient Care, Medical Knowledge, GME, CME, UME, Assessment, Simulation, Lecture, Independent Study, Infectious Disease, General Ob-Gyn,

General Information

Student,Resident,Faculty,Clerkship Director,Residency Director,
Patient Care,Medical Knowledge,
Assessment,Simulation,Lecture,Independent Study,
Clinical Focus
Infectious Disease,General Ob-Gyn,

Author Information

Aarthi Chezian, Ross University School of Medicine; Tanya Ray; Tatiana Araujo, MD ; David Czukerberg, MD

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