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Sanitizing Yesterday for a More Dangerous Tomorrow

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Abraham Lincoln probably had syphilis. Mary Todd Lincoln certainly had it (leading to her dementia and institutionalisation) and most likely contracted it from her husband. Accounts from Lincoln’s friend, law partner, and biographer, William Hearndon, indicate that Lincoln claimed to have contracted it sometime in 1835-36. It is a matter of record that Lincoln was medicated with “blue mass” (a mercury salt pill) which was the treatment of the day (which in and of itself is a little bit horrifying). Lincoln’s personal medical history is no concern of mine, but what I do find troubling is the way people react to the suggestion (Just look at some of the negative response that Deborah Hayden and Gore Vidal received when they expressed this possibility in a public forum) and a general lack of knowledge or curiosity about the subject.

This is a generally observable response to the subject of sexually transmitted infections in the 19th and 20th centuries. Take as an example a few more instances that American history has conveniently tried to forget regarding “social diseases”: (1) in 1890, one in every 7 marriages was sterile due to venereal infection; (2) in 1910 Army hospital admissions figures show that the rate of venereal disease among troops was ~20%, and epidemiologists noted that admissions figures would only show the worst cases and hypothesise that many more minor infections went entirely unreported; (3) in 1918 the Commission on Training Camp Activities in conjunction with the Law Enforcement Division started wide scale programs to inter any woman “reasonably suspected” of carrying a venereal disease or of being a prostitute or “charity girl” in detention centres as an attempt to stop venereal infection “at its source”; (4) the very first PSA film the government would ever make was “Fit to Fight”, an announcement on the evils of prostitution and the importance of combating venereal disease for achieving victory in WWI. It would later be re-imagined as “Fit to Win” and intended for general release, but theatres at the time declared it morally licentious and obscene, destroying many copies.

Do note that these are just a smattering of examples of the extraordinary impact that a single type of disease had over a relatively short span of years (for a meticulously detailed account of all the ways that venereal disease has shaped American society from 1880 on, I cannot recommend enough Allan M. Brandt’s No Magic Bullet, it is the source for the above examples and manages to pack worlds of exhaustive research all into a relatively slender book that remains quite accessible). Yet due to the nature of these illnesses, and shame over certain responses to them, prudishness balks at presenting the history accurately.

And the reason is pretty straightforward: how many people really want a bunch of syphilitics clogging up romantic fantasies about the past? How many historians really want to admit that the actions of nations and the victories in wartime might be more influenced by our biology than any amount of zeitgeist or any number of charismatic and skilled leaders? It doesn’t fit into our preferred narrative and as a result we scrub the very consideration out of history.

Only that doesn’t always work out so well. I really hate how trite and overused the aphorism “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” has become, but at times I have to accept that it might be appropriate. In a number of ways, the HIV epidemic in America mirrors our struggle with syphilis. And while the two pathogens were nothing alike, it turns out that humanity remained exactly the same and made a number of the same mistakes (silence due to prudery, the unwillingness of leaders to directly address the problem, scapegoating, scaremongering, misinformation, capitalising on tragedy for religious/political power, we even talked about internment camps again for a while there but thankfully that never became a reality). How many times had we made those mistakes before, and how many times will we make them again in the future? This isn’t some abstract question, the behaviour of society at large in these two instances can be directly tied to a body count. One that I would really not like to see get any higher.

Note: In this particular case I have used venereal disease as an example because I believe that an immature/prudish strain in society is particularly reticent to discussing it. However, you can see some measure of the same reticence to discussing any past disease provided it has not become remote enough from the present day. For instance, much more is said about the bubonic plague than is said about the 1918 flu or polio, possibly because the plague seems so remote in time and thus safer (despite the people that still die from it each year >_< I have actually had people argue with me when I tell them that bubonic plague still kills people today because they swear up and down that it went extinct in “like the 1300s or something”). I vividly remember reading an account in Nancy Tomes’ The Gospel of Germs (a discussion of the social impacts of germ theory in the Progressive era) that in the aftermath of the 1918 flu a sort of collective amnesia fell upon society after the disease was over and no one seemed to want to acknowledge it. It is a shame she didn’t develop that point more.

Further Note: This article speaks from an American point of view because that is what I have to work with and against on a day to day basis. If any of my (unfortunately still very small) pool of readers have noticed similar or contradictory cases in their country of origin, I would love to hear about them in the comments.

Sources & Further Reading

  • AIDS Science and Society Fan, et al.
  • And the Band Played On: Politics People and the AIDS Epidemic Randy Shilts
  • No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880 Allan M. Brandt
  • Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis Deborah Hayden

Written by Caudoviral

01/18/2011 at 16:31

Posted in Health, History & Politics

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