24 May 2017

The Apolinario Mabini Syphilis Rumors and Late 19th Century Philippine Power Play

By National Historical Commission - National Historical Commission of the Philippines, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1189762.
Those among readers who daydreamed through lessons on Apolinario Mabini in high school Philippine History would likely have paid attention more had textbooks not kept out one sleazy bit of information that would have made these lessons a tad more interesting: that there were rumors circulating in the day that Mabini’s paraplegia1 was caused by syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease.

The rumors were not completely without medical basis. Advanced tertiary level syphilis can cause gumma or tumors that can compress the spinal cord and cause paraplegia. In the present day, cases of syphilitic gumma are remarkably rare because of the availability of penicillin2. Mass production of this antibiotic substance for medical use, however, did not happen until the 1940s3.

That the syphilis rumors were way off the mark was finally confirmed late in the twentieth century. The historian Ambeth R. Ocampo, in an article for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, wrote that Mabini’s remains were exhumed in the eighties and examined by a doctor from the Philippine Orthopedic Hospital. The cause of Mabini’s paraplegia, the doctor concluded, was poliomyelitis4. This is a very infectious viral disease that causes permanent paralysis, and no cure is known to the present day5.

So why, then, did the syphilis rumors circulate? Of course, there is every possibility that the rumors stemmed from somebody’s ignorance; and this was the late nineteenth century when ignorance was more the rule rather than the exception. However, to assign a disease associated with promiscuity to an otherwise esteemed revolutionary and member of the fledgling republic’s government suggests malice and political power play.

In an article, Kallie Szczepanski thought so, too. She wrote: “Because his personal life and morality were difficult to attack, Mabini's enemies in the new government resorted to a whispering campaign to slander him. Jealous of his immense power, they started a rumor that his paralysis was due to syphilis, rather than polio — despite the fact that syphilis does not cause paraplegia6.” [Note that we have already established that paraplegia can be caused in extremely rare cases, by syphilitic gumma.]

Although independence had been declared, the intentions of the Americans were as yet unclear. Within the new government, there was jockeying for influence and there were those who were resentful of the influence that Mabini apparently wielded over Emilio Aguinaldo, the President of the new republic.

Mabini himself, in his memoirs, described the political atmosphere where it concerned him:
“I was also bitterly criticized for holding tyrannical ideas and inculcating them in the head of the government (Aguinaldo). On account of these unfortunate services, political scandal-mongers nicknamed me “Devil's Advocate to the President7.”
There will be no prizes for guessing that these same scandal-mongers were also responsible for spawning and propagating the syphilis stories.
This was the twilight of the Spanish era. Promiscuity was no laughing matter.

The “tyrannical ideas” likely stemmed from Mabini’s advice to Aguinaldo that the drafting of a constitution was a less urgent matter than the “organization of our armed forces and the raising of the funds needed for their maintenance.” Moreover Mabini, reading the Americans’ intention with eagle eyes, felt that government should not be encumbered by the writing of the constitution and should be free
“to negotiate an agreement which would prevent the horrors of war with the United States, on condition that such an agreement should bring positive benefits to the country and recognize the natural rights of the citizens7.”
The irony about all the political posturing was that it was always Aguinaldo who was eager to seek Mabini’s counsel. The latter did not even previously know the former. It was by sheer chance that a plan for a general uprising against Spanish rule, written by Mabini before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, reached the hands of Aguinaldo, who then asked the Tanauan-born intellectual to become his adviser.

When it became apparent to Mabini that his advice and the apparent trust he enjoyed in the eyes of Aguinaldo were being deeply resented by other members of the new government, he even tried to dissociate himself from the new president by moving to another house. Instead of taking the hint, Aguinaldo had a telephone connection established so that Mabini could, as the latter himself wrote, “continue to play the role of devil’s advocate.”

In fact, although this would not come out until Mabini wrote his memoirs, it turned out that the BatangueƱo revolutionary and intellectual did not even have a very high opinion of Aguinaldo at all. Concluding his memoirs and writing about why the revolution failed, Mabini wrote:
“To sum it up, the Revolution failed because it was badly led; because its leader (we assume he meant Aguinaldo) won his post by reprehensible rather than meritorious acts; because instead of supporting the men most useful to the people, he made them useless out of jealousy. Identifying the aggrandizement of the people with his own, he judged the worth of men not by their ability, character and patriotism but rather by their degree of friendship and kinship with him; and anxious to secure the readiness of his favorites to sacrifice themselves for him, he was tolerant even of their transgressions. Because he thus neglected the people forsook him; and forsaken by the people, he was bound to fall like a waxen idol melting in the heat of adversity. God grant we do not forget such a terrible lesson, learnt at the cost of untold suffering8.”
Notes and references:
1 Paraplegia is a type of paralysis from the waist down. Read more about the condition on Spinalcord.com.
2 “Paraplegia Caused by Infectious Agents; Etiology, Diagnosis and Management,” 2014 by Farhad Abbasi and Soolmaz Korooni Fardkhani, online at InTech Open Science, Open Minds.
3Penicillin,” Wikipedia.
4Mabini’s carabao’s milk,” 2013 by Ambeth R. Ocampo, online at the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
5Poliomyelitis (polio),” online at the World Health Organization.
6The Revolutionary Apolinario Mabini: The Phillippines' First Prime Minister from 1899 to 1903,” 2017 by Kallie Szczepanski, online at ThoughtCo.com.
7Development of the Revolution,” part of “The Philippine Revolution,” by Apolinario Mabini, published 1969.
8End and Fall of the Revolution,” part of “The Philippine Revolution,” by Apolinario Mabini, published 1969.

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