Oh, the Humanity! Syphilis and Suffering
Updated: Feb 2
We’ve talked a bit about the truly horrific disease of Syphilis, it’s origins, cause, and a bit about its history. Obviously, a spreadable fatal disease that has been around for a very long time has killed and disfigured millions of people: men, women, children, young and old. It is spread via sexual contact and from mother to child. The resulting symptoms were certainly hellish, but were the sufferers evil and thus to blame?
Once infected, the bacterium Treponema pallidum will first cause painless chancres that can be hard to notice, and if left untreated will progress to lesions and rashes, which can also be so mild they are difficult to detect.
Fever, swollen lymph glands, weight loss, headaches, muscle aches and fatigue can also appear at the secondary stage. If left untreated there can be a latent stage, where symptoms may not be visible at all, but patients can be spreading the disease and inner damage to their bones, heart, nerves and the brain begins.
Without symptoms, many would keep their secret and move on, marrying and
having children. At some point, it could be years, the infection will reach its tertiary stage, which is where a wide range of symptoms can occur, from mild to terrible. In this most terrifying
stage, painful ulcers deteriorate the skin, leaving horrifying, stinking craters that eventually eat away at bones, causing many to lose their nose. Ultimately, cardiac issues, dementia and madness would lead up to an awful death.
If you do a search for syphilis photos (very nasty stuff, you’ve been warned!), you will be faced with terrible lesions, genital deformities, missing noses, and deformed eyes, mouths, teeth and other body parts. What is not seen is the mental and spiritual toll syphilis would impart on its victims, though perhaps looking into their haunted and tortured eyes, one can get a glimpse.
When German physician Joseph Grunpeck was struck down with syphilis, he described it as “so cruel, so distressing, so appalling that until now nothing more terrible or disgusting has ever been known on this earth”.
Because syphilis is contracted via sexual contact and the disfigurements were so grotesque and obvious, a terrible social stigma was attached to afflicted people (and still is today). Suffering victims were considered ‘unclean’, morally corrupt and disgraceful. Many physicians in Victorian times even refused to treat syphilis patients, believing that the pox and suffering were ‘God’s will’. Before the beginning understanding
of the microscopic world, it would be easy to view the disease as punishment for abhorrent behavior, but what of the innocent babies, unsuspecting spouses of promiscuous partners, assault victims, young men and women forced into prostitution, or just someone who had a momentary lapse in judgement?
Imagine being horribly disfigured because your mother married a soldier who visited a brothel during the war years ago.
No Nose Clubs
‘There was no hiding it due to the way syphilis manifested itself on the face. Nasal disfigurement became a sign of moral failing in its victims, regardless of the cause.’ Dr. Lindsey Fiztharris
A funny/not funny result of ‘saddle nose’, the collapse of the bridge of the nose to cave into the face often seen in the tertiary phase of syphilis, was the appearance of ‘No Nose Clubs’. In February of 1874, it was reported that a Mr. Crampton hosted clandestine parties to which he invited noseless people he met on the streets of London to a tavern to dine with him. To the shock of the tavern waiters, a surprising number of guests attended and the meetings continued monthly for a year, until the death of Mr. Crampton. Maybe this was one of the first support groups ever formed! A small comfort for these poor souls. Imagine this: it was not uncommon to walk the streets of European cities in the 19th century and see several people with a hole in their face where their nose should be or a shiny metal nose.
For those with means, hiding the embarrassing and stigma producing symptoms spurred advancements of prosthetics and reconstructive surgeries. Artificial noses of metal were created and surgeons were employed to try and recreate noses from tissue harvested from unaffected areas. One method was to take skin from one area, twist it and sew it on. Another method employed was to sew skin from the upper arm to the face (while still attached), let it heal and sever it a few weeks later. That'd be an interesting few weeks!
Demonizing Female Sexuality and the Rise of Feminism?
On another front, syphilis was also instrumental in shaping attitudes towards women and inspiring feminism. Prostitutes were often blamed for the spread of syphilis and since most prostitutes were women, women’s sexuality was implicated and demonized. In an effort to control the spread, officials focused on controlling women. The Contagious Diseases Act in the 1860s kept track of prostitutes when police with ‘good cause’ were allowed to stop women in the street and subject them to ‘voluntary’ internal and extremely invasive examinations. Women were placed on a register and subject to routine ‘examinations’ and could be detained for non-compliance.
For wives and mothers from all walks of life, it was also common for spouses to not be informed of a syphilis diagnosis as it might affect their husband’s reputation! So they knew they were sick, but not told why. They continued to get pregnant (if they could) with a heartbreaking stillborn rate and with surviving children with deformities and disabilities. These practices started debates which led to changes in protocols and attitudes.
We now know that it is not a person’s morals, but tiny organisms that we cannot even see transferring from one place to another that causes syphilis. Treponema pallidum is not being malicious, it is just doing what it does with no emotion involved. But the human suffering caused over hundreds of years of syphilis is unimaginable! It is sad to think of the physical pain, disfigurement and lives cut short before they could contribute to society (there are many writers, artists, scientists, leaders struck down in their prime - stay tuned!).
The damage done by ignorant and cruel attitudes caused immeasurable emotional distress, stigma, shame, and the devastation of abandonment and betrayal only added to the wretchedness. If people can find a difference between themselves and the afflicted, it might mean they were immune, it only happens to ‘those’ people, not me! People’s attitudes change with understanding (hopefully). As with all diseases that we have attached stigma to, we should remember that these are people afflicted with disease, regardless of how they obtained it. We should each carefully consider our attitudes towards patients (i.e suffering people) with diseases like syphilis (which, by the way, while we have effective treatments now (Penicillin), infections are still occurring and are actually on the rise!)