The Nature of Eureka


Syphilitic Blues

A plant I seek out this time of year to enjoy its sheer beauty is great blue lobelia which occurs in the wet soil along the edge of creeks, wet prairied, and seeps. It’s a plant that likes wet feet, unnoticed throughout the growing season, but now sporting brilliant azure blue blossoms.

The plant, too, is an interesting side note in American medical history, leading physician Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815) to correctly ascertain in his 1810 publication Collections for an Assay Towards A Materia Medica of the United States, that diseases including syphilis, gonorrhea, smallpox and measles were entirely unknown to all North American Indian tribes before they became acquainted with the Whites.

Therefore, he questioned how this beautiful blue lobelia could attract attention as a treatment for syphilis learned from native peoples, since syphilis was not among diseases that they prior to European invasion. By the time Barton’s 1810 essay appeared, this cure for syphilis was relegated to the realm of fake news.

The story begins more than 60 years earlier when, Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist, traveled in America for three years from 1747-1750. Upon his return to Sweden in 1751, Kalm’s 3-volume Travels in America published in Swedish. An English edition appeared 20 years later in 1770. During his travels in the northeast, Kalm met Sir William Johnson (1715-1774), an Englishman elected as a ceremonial chief of the Mohawks in New York (for political reasons, of course).

Sir William famously purchased a Mohawk remedy touted as a sure cure for syphilis, which he sought for his own relief, since his high moral character included a few flaws. Johnson related the story to Peter Kalm, who in turn, published an account of the cure in a Swedish journal in 1751. In 1753, Linnaeus, borrowing from Kalm’s account, named the plant Lobelia siphilitica.

Consequently, European medical journals were abuzz with news of this new cure for the dreaded incurable disease, which even men of high moral standing were likely to contract from their mistresses. But alas, as William Woodville put it in his Medical Botany, published in 1791, “ … we do not find that the antisyphilitic powers have been confirmed in any instances of European practice.”

Today we still call great blue lobelia Lobelia siphilitica, remnants of footnote in history.

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