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Notable Notes
March 2018

The History of Congenital Syphilis Behind The Inheritance by Edvard Munch

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Medicine, San Giovanni di Dio Hospital, Gorizia, Italy
  • 2Azienda per l'Assistenza Sanitaria, No. 2 Bassa Friulana-Isontina, Gorizia, Italy
JAMA Dermatol. 2018;154(3):280. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2017.5834

This Notable Note provides an example of how an artistic work may unexpectedly provide information about the history of a disease.

The Norwegian painter and printmaker Edvard Munch (December 12, 1863–January 23, 1944) was one of the most celebrated exponents of the Expressionist Movement. His painting The Inheritance (1897-1899) is a portrait of a mother with her son, who is affected by congenital syphilis (Figure). The work shocked society because Munch had depicted a person with a sexually transmitted disease, a taboo of that time. Moreover, the painter had depicted a grotesque inversion of the classic theme “Madonna with child.” In the mid-1890s, Munch had visited the Hôpital Saint-Louis in Paris, where there was an impressive museum collection of wax models, called moulages, that were used to teach anatomy to medical students and artists. One of these moulages depicted an infant with congenital syphilis. Moreover, in this same hospital, Munch had seen a woman crying with a child who was affected by venereal disease.1

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