Syphilis was a scary epidemic in the 16th century. One doctor made it less so.

Ask any social scientist and they'll agree: Humans are really, really, really good at having sex.

But, for as long as we've been having it, we've also been trying to prevent some of the less desirable things that sometimes come along with it — namely unwanted pregnancies and STIs.

Modern science and medical innovation give sexually-active people lots of safe and reliable options to do both, and condoms, in particular, are now extremely effective — preventing pregnancy and STIs about 98% of the time when they're used correctly.


Getting to this point wasn't a quick process though. It involved centuries of trial and error, some terrible ideas (two words: dung sponges), and some serious medical breakthroughs.

A condom from 1813 that might be a bit beyond its expiration date. Image via Lund University Historical Museum/Wikimedia Commons.

Condoms can be traced back to about 3,000 B.C.

According to Greek mythology, King Minos of Crete and his wife, Pasiphaë, used a goat's bladder as a barrier during sex, after several of Minos' mistresses died from the "scorpions and serpents" in his semen.

Over the next several thousand years, Greek, Roman, New Guinea, Chinese, and Japanese civilizations developed and used their own condom variations for women and men using linen, animal bladders, intestines, or a combination of the three. While evidence of condom use continued to appear in art and literature for hundreds of years, it took until the 16th century for a doctor to apply scientific methods to test their effectiveness.

That doctor was Gabriel Fallopius, and his work greatly advanced the human understanding of reproductive health.

An etching of Gabriel Fallopius. Lin-Manuel Miranda hasn't written a musical about his mostly-unknown legacy yet, but he absolutely could. Image via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons.

By his early-thirties, Fallopius was already considered one of the greatest anatomical researchers of the time. He studied the muscles of the head, the workings of the inner ear, and the nerves and muscles of the human eye. He disproved the theory that the penis entered the uterus during sex. He proved the existence of the hymen in women and discovered the tubes (now called fallopian tubes) connecting the uterus to the ovaries. He reportedly coined the word "vagina" and was the first to describe the clitoris.

With an extensive knowledge of reproduction and biology, Fallopius turned his attention toward the prevention of STIs — namely, syphilis.

"A Harlot's Progress," a famous 17th century etching by William Hogarth featuring a fictional British prostitute, Moll Hackabout, dying of syphilis. Image via The British Museum/Wikimedia Commons.

By the 16th century, syphilis infections had reached epidemic levels across western Europe. Early stage sufferers would endure rashes, joint pains, and fever. Late stage sufferers could go blind, experience heart problems, mental disorders, nerve problems, and eventually, die. Even worse, men and women were carrying the disease unknowingly, contracting it and then passing it on again without ever showing symptoms until they were past the point of treatment. Women of childbearing age were at an added risk because they could pass their infection on to their unborn children, causing birth defects, such as deformed noses, misshapen teeth, blindness, and deafness.

Fallopius and his contemporaries knew enough about syphilis to know that it was transmitted through sexual contact. He further deduced that a barrier preventing the genitals from touching directly during sex could reduce the risk of exposure.

The solution? A thin linen sheath soaked in herbs and unnamed chemicals and then dried.

Men, Fallopius surmised, could wear the sheath during sex — reportedly tied with a ribbon — and potentially prevent infection.

It was a fascinating and simple idea. The next step was proving it worked.

In what is considered to be one of the first historical examples of a clinical trial, Fallopius recruited 1,100 men to test out a sheath during sex.

Gabriel Fallopius describes some of his discoveries to the Cardinal Duke of Ferrara. Painting by Francis James Barraud. Image via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons.

The results were astonishing: not one single participant reported contracting syphilis while using the sheath.

In a book about the experiment published two years after his death, Fallopius reported on his findings: "I tried the experiment [the use of condoms] on 1,100 men, and I call immortal God to witness that not one of them was infected."

Unlike a modern clinical trial, which would confirm patient reports with tests, Fallopius had to trust his participants to tell the truth. Still, the trial was a major breakthrough in STI prevention — and in our collective understanding of the transmission of this deadly disease.

Centuries later, the condom continues to evolve.

Simple, portable, and life-saving. Image via iStock.

Linen and animal intestine sheaths have been replaced with latex, polyurethane or polyisoprene. There are female condoms and condoms of all sizes and shapes for men. They are designed to improve pleasure for both partners, made increasingly thin with ridges, ripples, and other pleasurable accoutrements. Best of all, they're inexpensive, readily available, and easily transportable.

Philanthropist Bill Gates is so convinced of the importance of condom use in aiding sexual wellness in developing countries that, in 2013, he awarded grants to designers who could make an effective condom that doesn't limit sexual enjoyment. The winning design, an ultra-sensitive sheath made partly from bovine collagen, is awaiting approval from the FDA.

Condoms are far from perfect, but when used correctly by consenting partners, they give people more autonomy and control over their bodies.

And while there have been many innovations beyond what he ever dreamed of, we can collectively thank Gabriel Fallopius for his work in helping the science along to where it is today.

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

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Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."