Syphilis is a disease with a long history; it was present in the New World prior to 1492 and possibly introduced into Europe at about this time. There is some documented evidence of syphilis among sailors who returned to Europe from the New World in 1493, perhaps even by Columbus. Girolamo Fracastoro (1478–1553) is best known for giving the disease the name ‘syphilis’; it was taken from an epic poem he wrote about the disease in 1530, entitled ‘Syphilis sive morbus Gallicus’, which translates as ‘Syphilis or the French disease’. In 1905, Fritz Schaudinn (1871–1906) and colleague Erich Hoffmann discovered the bacterium that causes syphilis: Treponema pallidum. Prior to this, syphilis and gonorrhoea were thought to be caused by the same organism. The British physiologist and surgeon John Hunter (1728–93) reported that after he had inoculated himself with exudates from a patient with gonorrhoea, he developed gonorrhoea and syphilis. We now know that these diseases are caused by different bacteria and Mr Hunter’s patient just happened to have both infections.