Former UK Museum Director Traces Origin of Syphilis in Recent Research

by Elizabeth Adams

(Feb. 14, 2014) - Former University of Kentucky museum director Mary Lucas Powell was recently cited in The Scientist for her research tracing the prehistoric origins of treponematosis, a complex of diseases that includes syphilis.

The article, "Syphilis: Then and Now," references Powell's work, "The Myth of Syphilis: The Natural History of Mary Lucas PowellTreponematosis in North America," published in collaboration with Dr. Della Collins Cook, professor of anthropology at Indiana University in 2005. During her time at UK, Dr. Powell served as the director and curator of the W.S. Webb Museum of Anthropology and as an adjunct assistant professor in the department of anthropology.

In "The Myth of Syphilis," Powell and Cook charged experts to write chapters reviewing archaeological and paleopathological evidence for the existence of treponematosis in specific geographical regions from Alaska to Mexico. These authors presented their findings in a standardized format to enhance comparability across regions and a time period spanning 6,000 years. The authors reported many indisputable cases that resembled modern forms of treponematosis spread by skin-to-skin contact. They did not find evidence for sexually-transmitted venereal syphilis, a form of the disease that appeared in Europe following the Columbus’ first voyages to the New World in the 15th century.

"It was not until I left the museum in 1997 that I had the necessary time to devote to compiling this book with Dr. Cook," Powell said."We had long shared a keen interest in the natural history of the many forms of this disease, treponematosis, and we felt that a thorough epidemiologically informed consideration of the available evidence was long overdue."

The Scientist is an online and print magazine for life science professionals dedicated to covering a wide range of topics central to the study of cell and molecular biology, genetics and other life-science fields. To read the full article, click here.

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