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VD on Valentine's Day: A Gift That Keeps on Giving


Is there a better way to spend Valentine's Day than attending a lecture on the history of syphilis in the United States?

I didn't think so, and neither did Ric Loll and Katherine Matthews, a married couple from Silver Spring who sat holding hands this morning in the auditorium of the National Museum of Health and Medicine while medical historian John Parascandola (above) held forth on his favorite subject. Ric, an Air Force retiree, had seen the lecture advertised and thought it sounded like fun. "We have a large library on human sexuality at home," he told me.

That's exactly the sort of reaction Andrea Schierkolk, the museum's public programs manager, was hoping for when she scheduled the event. Valentine's Day was "absolutely the perfect day. We considered it a good preventative measure. Couples could spend a couple of hours here then go out on a date tonight better informed."

"Plus, we have the artifacts here," said Tim Clarke Jr., the museum's deputy director of communications.

Ah, yes, the artifacts. Have you ever seen an incredibly lifelike wax model of male genitalia bursting out all over with syphilitic sores? Let me tell you, you don't soon forget it. Other wax models arranged in a glass case at the museum helpfully illustrate what syphilis can do to fingers, ears, noses and lips. And bones. There's the skull of a syphilitic woman covered with lumpy lesions and a tibia that looks like a table leg that's been gnawed on by termites. Give me gonorrhea any day of the week.

Of course, I say that not really knowing much about gonorrhea. Syphilis, though, I feel like an expert on. Dr. Parascandola, the author of "Sex, Sin and Science: A History of Syphilis in America," quickly sketched the history of the disease, which was first noted in Europe not long after Columbus and his crew returned from their first voyage to the New World.

Did it come from the Americas or did it start in Europe? Scientists still aren't sure. The blame shifts back and forth every few years as new discoveries are made. Suffice to say that wherever syphilis came from, you wouldn't have wanted to have it before the invention of penicillin.

Early treatment included bloodletting, taking laxatives and sweating in saunas, anything to get the corruption out. There were those who recommended flaying a pigeon alive and placing it on the penis. Either that or a frog that had been cut in two. "It probably didn't do much," Dr. Parascandola noted.

Mercury quickly became the preferred treatment. Why? Well, they used it to treat leprosy and the lesions of syphilis sort of looked like that disease, so why not? Doctors back then knew mercury was bad for you but they figured exposure to the toxic element was better than having syphilis. They prescribed applying it in all sorts of interesting ways, from breathing it in to slathering it on. In Renaissance Italy you could buy anti-venereal underpants: undergarments coated with a mercurial ointment.

It makes you wonder if Florentine mothers would remind their sons: "Honey, make sure you have your clean anti-venereal underpants on. I'd hate for you to be hit by a carriage and taken to the blood-letter in dirty anti-venereal underpants."

In 1905 the nasty little spirochete that causes the disease was discovered. Four years later a German named Ehrlich invented an arsenic compound to kill it. It really worked, though you had to be careful taking it. (Arsenic!)

The military has always shown an interest in syphilis. Posters from World War I and II urged soldiers not to sleep with risky women. Read one poster, illustrated with a smiling sweetheart: "She may look clean--but: Pick-ups, 'good-time' girls, prostitutes spread syphilis and gonorrhea. You can't beat the Axis if you get VD."

Everyone knew what the problem was back then: promiscuous women. Not just prostitutes, but women who quite literally loved a man, or several men, in uniform. "Khaki wackies," "victory girls" and "good-time Charlottes" they called them. There was no such thing as a promiscuous man, since a promiscuous man was just

Did you know that during World War II, as many as 30,000 syphilitic American women were forcibly quarantined in so-called "Rapid Treatment Centers" and given doses of the arsenic compound? Yup. Dr. Parascandola showed a clip from a Public Health Service film at the time on these centers. We got to meet Mary Lou, one of the patients. "She's the one in the rumpled dress," the narrator helpfully pointed out. And we know how that dress got rumpled, don't we, Mary Lou?

Penicillin changed everything. One shot and you're good to go.

At the end of his lecture the museum staff presented Dr. Parascandola with a gift: a little pink stuffed syphilis spirochete. (The gift shop sells them for $7.35.)

"Oh, the pox," he said, delighted. "Wait till I share it with my wife."


By John Kelly  |  February 14, 2009; 3:30 PM ET
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Wait...syphilis still exists? I thought it had been upgraded to HIV, chlamydia, and whatever other lovelies are usually in the news these days.

Posted by: coreyfam | February 14, 2009 4:33 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if the National Museum of Health mentioned syphilis was at the center of the Public Health Service's Tuskegee Experiment from 1932 to 1972, where it did not treat 399 men afflicted with the disease:

Posted by: jcbcmb68 | February 14, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

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