Suffering Venereal Disease in the Early Eighteenth Century

Lindsey Fitzharris (@ChirurgeonsAppr) recently discussed deformities caused by syphilis and the problems of prevention using early condoms (“Syphilis: A Love Story”). She also regularly tweets horrifying pictures of syphilis sufferers in the past, or the raddled syphilitic bones that remain. Evocative stuff.

One of the less revolting images. Head illustrating syptoms of syphilis, 1632. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

But the day-to-day life of someone suffering from venereal disease wasn’t always so dramatic. Some Sloane letters hint at the physical and emotional experiences of those suffering from long-term venereal complaints.

In the early eighteenth century, many venereal symptoms were not immediately obvious to people. The skin rashes, pustules and chancres of late stage gonorrhoea might easily be confused with syphilis, which in turn could be mistaken for scurvy. Treatments for syphilis and scurvy might even be the same: the underlying problem seen as being hot and corrosive or a matter of poisoned blood. As William Salmon explained in a popular remedy book (1703), his family pills would cure, along with other diseases, “the Scurvy (the only reigning disease in this Kingdom) when it is grown so bad, as to become scandalous, so as many People think it to be the POX”.[1] To further confuse matters, any whitish discharge from the genitals—known as ‘whites’ in women, ‘gleets’ in men or ‘running of the reins’ in all— was potentially classed as a gonorrhoea. Gonorrhoea, they believed, might be caused by masturbation or accidents to the lower back, not just sexual intercourse.

The problem of diagnosis can be seen in the letters of Thomas Hewitt, Roger Cook and J. Hopson. In 1721, Hewitt treated an unnamed gentleman aged 60, described as being scorbutic (e.g. ulcerated skin, lethargy and pallor). The patient’s main troubles, though, were a continual need to defecate and rectal pain. He had several rectal growths, which were voiding a frothy substance. Hewitt was obviously of two minds about the cause of the ailments. Although he had administered mercurial purges (treatment for syphilis), he also insisted that the patient was “an honest trustworthy gentleman”. Sloane, incidentally, also prescribed a typical syphilis treatment: salivation. Cook, in his undated letter, reported suffering from weakness caused by a constant gleet and nocturnal pollutions. Although he didn’t specify gonorrhoea, this would have been a suspicion. Hopson, for example, immediately suspected gonorrhoea when he had “running of the reins” for a couple days.

The physical experience of venereal problems and their treatments was inevitably painful, though they varied widely. Henry Downing reported that he’d had a three-month salivation to treat venereal disease when he was in his twenties. By 1726, he was ricketty, frail, and sedentary. His physical symptoms included pain throughout his body; heart palpitations; heat and pain in his anus, scrotum and urethra; difficulty urinating; and scaly rough skin. A pretty miserable existence.

Hewitt’s patient took opiates to deal with his pain, or indeed perhaps some of his other treatments. In order to drain the pus, Hewitt had dilated his patient’s anal supporation with a sponge. Mercurial treatments also generally required extensive bed rest, owing the various leakages, skin eruptions, and tooth loosening. Not so different from the symptoms of syphilis it was meant to be treating!

The case of Mr Campbell, aged 63, also suggests the long-term health problems that people thought might occur. Thomas Molyneaux and other medical practitioners wrote to Sloane on Campbell’s behalf in 1724. While not obviously venereal symptoms, Molyneaux saw Campbell’s experience of clap in 1685 as significant. Campbell had trouble urinating afterwards. By 1724, Campbell had a blockage in the bladder, pain while sitting, and a hot and burning sensation in the urethra. He was also voiding slime instead of urine.

Worse yet, failure to disclose one’s venereal condition could be fatal. In August 1725, J. Hetherington wrote to Sloane about the death of a young man after being inoculated for smallpox. The underlying concern was that the inoculation, a novel treatment championed by Sloane, might have caused the death. Hethrington was adamant that the patient, who had not been in the “correct habit”, was the one to blame. The young man had failed to tell the inoculation surgeon about his venereal disease and recent treatment. (A physician applied a plaster to his swollen scrotum.) The treatment had successfully reduced the inflammation, but a fever started the next day. This, Hetherington was certain, caused the complications with the inoculation.

Given that these men were blamed for their poor bodily condition, stemming from lack of self-control, no wonder shame and fear were constant companions for the venereal sufferer. There are relatively few letters to Sloane discussing sexual problems of any kind, and some—such as that by E.W.—were anonymous.[2] Embarrassment might also suggest why Hetherington’s patient did not tell the surgeon. Once his problem was apparently gone, there was no need to tell anyone else, including the surgeon, about it. A sufferers’ physical condition also needs to be considered alongside his emotional one. Patients listed fear (Downing and Hopson), weariness (Downing), and melancholy (Hewitt’s patient) among their symptoms. Pain in early modern England was seen as simultaneously physical and emotional.

As their bodies leaked in unseemly ways and their skin turned ulcerated or rough, the sufferers who wrote to Sloane must have been terrified at what fate might yet await them: the fallen noses, blindness or ulcerated skin of syphilis or the swollen testicles and impotence of gonorrhoea.  And above all, they had only themselves to blame.



[1] William Salmon, Collectanea Medica, the Country Physician (London, 1703), p. 452.

[2] Women in particular are absent. This may partly be because of the many ways in which the ‘whites’ might be interepreted medically, if symptoms were present at all. Hopson had asked “the woman”, but she claimed to have no symptoms. As we know today, many women never have any symptoms. Women and their physicians might, deliberately or not, be able to avoid a more shameful venereal diagnosis that called the woman’s behaviour, or that of their husbands, into question.

On shame, see for example K. Siena, Venereal Disease, Hospitals and the Urban Poor: London’s Foul Wards, 1600-1800 (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004).

On the moral implications of leaky bodies, see L.W. Smith, “The Body Embarrassed? Rethinking the Leaky Male Body in Eighteenth-Century England and France“, Gender and History 23, 1 (2011): 26-46.

Two great blog posts on v.d. (by Jennifer Evans) appeared just after I’d published this one!  One is on “The Secret Disease” and the other is on “Beauty and the Pox“.

4 comments on “Suffering Venereal Disease in the Early Eighteenth Century

  1. Joe Thomas on

    It is really interesting how diseases have evolved. And also how medicine is progressing… at least it was, I don’t know if pharmaceutical businesses do care about our health anymore.

    Reply

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