Bugs, Drugs, and Medical Thugs: A history of syphilis, the invention of penicillin, and research on vulnerable populations


Syphilis has a long and sordid history. This disease has had a profound influence on the practice of medicine over the last few centuries. The advancement of both drug development and laboratory medicine has been shaped by our battle against the causative agent, T. Pallidum. This lecture covers the history and origins of syphilis, the invention of penicillin, and unethical clinical trials conducted on vulnerable populations in the fight against this disease. Current laboratory tests are described and the clinical algorithms recommended for diagnosis including the traditional and reverse sequence are outlined.

Originally presented on March 28, 2013, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Lecture Presenter

Maggie Hopkins, MD, MBA

Maggie Hopkins, MD, MBA

Clinical Pathology Resident PGY2
University of Utah School of Medicine

Dr. Hopkins joined the ARUP/University of Utah family in June 2012, to complete residency in Clinical pathology. She has an MD and MBA from Tulane University in New Orleans. Her interests are aging, infectious, inflammatory, and chronic disease and how these can be modulated by dietary and environmental factors. Dr. Hopkins career focus is on leadership and entrepreneurship. She is an active member of the Utah Medical Association and President of the UMA Resident Section.


After this presentation, participants will be able to:

  • Describe the four stages of syphilis with defining characteristics of each stage.
  • List the compounds discovered and used historically in the treatment for syphilis in order of efficacy.
  • Critically evaluate the ethicality of research conducted on human subjects in Tuskegee and Guatemala.
  • Compare pros and cons of the traditional and reverse algorithms for syphilis screening.

Sponsored by:

University of Utah School of Medicine, and ARUP Laboratories