Section : VIPs

Ivan the Terrible and Syphilis ?

Ivanthe terrible

  • Ivan the terrible (Ива́н Васи́льевич; 1530-1584) was ruler of the Russian Empire:
    • He is credited for expanding the « country of Moscow » into the Russian Empire.
    • He built Saint Basil’s Cathedral (Собор Василия Блаженного, 1555-1561) in Red Square.
    • He is also known for having being extremely cruel, mentally deranged and handling out
    • Out of « a burst of Anger », he murdered his son with his own hands.
  • Soon though, Ivan’s life took a dramatic turn, strikingly changing his personality and his policies. In 1553 (at age 23)
  • In 1963 scientists exhumed the mortal remains of Ivan, buried at the Kelmisvi Chapel, Moscow. Forensic tests on those remains conclusively point to a high level of mercury.
  • Because of his sexual history (see Below) many website sources suggest that he had syphilis, treatment of which could have explained his sudden change of behavior: including nervousness, irritability, change of temperament, and tremor.
  • Behavioural issues and « Medical History »
    • He married 8 times and had three of his wives poisoned, one drowned and 2 were sent to a convent.
    • Other than this he appears also to have demonstrated numerous impersonal sexual relationships directed to both sexes, often rapes. Nevertheless, much of this exaggeration of his sexual behavior is depicted by his enemies… »that he deflowered hundreds of maidens, forced noble ladies to get out of their carriages and lift up their skirts » »fifty ladies about with him to satisfy his needs on his travels »
  • Treatments
    • Mercury steam treatment was used at the time for the treatment of syphilis and could give rise to neuropsychiatric bouts of uncontrollable rage.
    • Mercury was used (in this time of alchemical medicine) for the treatment of « ailments » of the skin which included syphilis and leprosy. The following article shows how syphilis sufferers have more mercury in their bones: click HERE
  • Why it was not syphilis itself:
    • If Ivan was treated for syphilis, it was for primary or secondary syphilis. However the treatment is probably not that for neurosyphilis (brain involvement in tertiary syphilis), as neurosyphilis tends to occur decades after the primary infection. The sudden behavior change at only age 20 cannot be attributed to neurosyphilis
    • No « gumma » – the bone changes of tertiary syphilis were found.
  • While psychological effects cannot be ruled out chronic mercury was likely the source of his sudden increase madness.
  • Therefore, based on medical history ALONE, he might have had syphilis, but it is unlikely to have explained his have explained his behavior as a young rule.

To conclude, mercury was used for treatment of skin conditions and it is likely to explain neuropsychiatric symptoms – however it was used to treat lesions which appeared on the skin and it could have been for syphilis or something else. (Remember that before the classification in the late 18th century, it was impossible to describe skin conditions with any form of accuracy)


Dr Christophe HSU – dermatologist. Geneva, Switzerland


Ivan the Terrible. Isabel de Mariaga. 2006. Yale University Press

Pictures from wikipedia