The Curious Origins of Every Major STD

A possible joining of man and beast, astrological misinformation, and potential celebrity sufferers (cough, Shakespeare, cough) all dot the history of some of the more common sexually transmitted diseases. Taking a deeper look into the origins and histories of these under-the-sheets maladies, one comes across some seriously weird stories. Here is a collection of the best anecdotes you never wanted to know about infirmities you never wanted to mention.


​Ludwig Halberstädter and Stanislaus von Prowazek became the first men to write about what is now known as chlamydia back in 1907. Luckily, these men did not discover it in their misspent youth, but in the eye infections of orangutans during expeditions to Java, an island that lies between Sumatra and Bali. Their intent was to study syphilis, but they came across what they called, “chlamydozoa,” looking at scrapings taken from the eyes of infected monkeys.This led to future research on the newly noted disease. But, it wasn’t till much later that a bacterium was found to be the source of the infection.



According to Claude Quetel’s great subway read, The History of Syphilis, one of the first explanations for an outbreak of syphilis in Europe was astrological: “The conjunction of Saturn (an unlucky planet) and Jupiter in the sign of the Scorpion and the house of Mars (also unlucky) on 25 November 1484 was generally considered to be the indisputable, albeit somewhat remote, cause of the epidemic.” When Quetel says "remote," he means both in time and space. The first outbreak of syphilis in Europe came about in 1494, so that's more than 10 years after the star alignment, making this theory pretty fishy. 

More likely is that Columbus brought back syphilis to the Europeans, small payback for all the diseases he sent the other way. This hypothesis is still popular today, but competes with another theory put forth in 1934 which claims that syphilis was always present in Europe, just never properly identified.



Anyone who's read Ernest Hemingway knows “the clap.” Minor Hemingway characters are constantly succumbing to this venereal disease, otherwise known as gonorrhea, and though it's probably been around since Biblical times, it's more fun to talk about the origins of "the clap.”

Some say the nickname came about because the “clap” of pain that occurred when victims urinated; it may also refer to the frequent visits by GI’s to French “clapiers” or brothels. The soldiers had this funny way of coming back with gonorrhea... really weird.

Another theory is that the nickname refers to an old-school medical technique that involved “clapping” the penis on both sides to remove the discharge. Ouch. 



The Greeks, inventors of democracy and... herpes? Those symposiums weren't spent just philosophizing about Eros. Intellectual exchange asideHippocrates seems to have been the first to write about herpes, and the word “herpes” itself has Greek origins, meaning “a creeping.”
More modern assessments of the disease suggest that herpes originated from animals. Specifically, herpes is thought to have come from chimpanzees, then passed to humans through a “cross-species transmission event,” which is really vague and should probably stay that way.


Crabs/Pubic Lice

Pubic lice apparently have characteristics in common with lice commonly found on gorillas. Again, how the transfer from gorilla to human occurred is not documented, but this is starting to become a disturbing pattern...


This terrible epidemic is actually a version of a chimpanzee virus, and it's thought that HIV was originally passed to humans when hunters came in contact with the blood of infected chimps. But the disease that spread incredibly quickly in the 80s can be traced back to the 1920s and the city of Kinshasa. A potent combination of railroads, unsterilized needles, population growth, and the sex trade all contributed to spread of HIV.

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Kara King is a writer at Thrillist and has a degree in awkward subjects. Follow her to eternal awkwardness at @karatillie.