Syphilis, sex and psychiatry, 1789-1925: Part 2



Publication Details

Kaplan, R. M. (2010). Syphilis, sex and psychiatry, 1789¿1925: Part 2. Australasian Psychiatry, 18 (1), 22-27.


Objectives: Syphilis has changed the course of history, shaped the path of medicine and had more influence on psychiatry than any other illness. This paper, part two of a two-part series, investigates the historical, social and cultural aspects of the interaction of syphilis and psychiatry.

Conclusion: By the end of the 19th century, social changes such as population growth, mass migration from Eastern Europe and technological developments led to a great rise in syphilis. By 1900, it was estimated that 5–20% of the population of Europe and the USA had, or would have, syphilis. By 1914, there were over 100 000 new cases and 3 million cases of syphilis in Great Britain. There was a constant interaction between syphilis, prostitution and sexual crime; it was the likely motivation for the Jack the Ripper murders, if not many in the next century. The idea of hereditary syphilis fitted perfectly into the theory of degeneration and coursed through psychiatry and caught the attention of Adolf Hitler, facilitating his antisemitic paranoia. Psychiatric progress passed to the German school, led by Kraepelin who did his first research into the symptoms and course of neurosyphilis. In 1906, Wasserman’s serological test for syphilis showed that latent lesions could be present. Any doubt about the cause of syphilis was finally eliminated when Noguchi and Moore demonstrated the presence of treponema pallidum in paretic brains in 1913.1 German academic psychiatry defined psychiatric practice for the next century but malariotherapy, the first physical treatment in psychiatry, was announced by Julius Wagner-Juarreg in Vienna in 1917, bringing hope to the incurable and destroying the climate of therapeutic nihilism that haunted psychiatry. The first trial of malariotherapy in Australia was done by Reginald Ellery at Mont Park Hospital In 1927 in Melbourne. The discovery of penicillin was a caesura, ending malariotherapy and leading many to regard syphilis as a nigh-extinct illness, but this turned out to be an illusion. Syphilis is returning in new forms in tandem with the AIDS epidemic. Written-off endlessly by its obituarists, syphilis abides.

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