Friday, January 8, 2016


My father was born in 1932, I think. He lasted until he was 81. He told me stories about things he did at 12 that I didn't do until I was 18.

He grew up during the late '40s and early '50s. I asked him about diseases during those days and he basically said, "There was penicillin," which was about all that existed when I was five years old. I am allergic to it.

I actually know a woman who had syphilis when she was 19. Got it from a Romanian.

This article is from Popular Science and was written by Shaunacy Ferro.

The article starts here.

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons: Syphilis Can Be Cured

During World War II, public health propaganda worked to convince people to treat their syphilis. In 1972, the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law restricting the distribution of birth control to unmarried women, and by 1973, 10 million women were using the pill. This marked the apex of the sexual revolution, or so conventional scholarship tells us. Freed from the fear of getting pregnant, women begin engaging in more sex outside of the traditional confines of marriage.

Put a new study suggests that the sexual revolution began long before birth control gained popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, modern sexual mores may have arisen from another kind of prevention -- a cure for syphilis. As World War II raged, the U.S. population, including soldiers, were dying of syphilis at an alarming rate. At the disease's peak in 1939, syphilis killed 20,000 people. An estimated 600,000 Americans were infected by the mid-1940s. War propaganda warned Americans that STDs wasted manpower -- eradicating syphilis among both the military and civilians became a priority. Penicillin, discovered in 1928, finally began to be used as a cure for syphilis in 1943. Following a wide-scale public health campaign, syphilis incidence fell by 95 percent between 1947 and 1957, and by the mid-1950s the epidemic had largely collapsed.

A new analysis published in the January issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior argues that curing syphilis contributed to riskier, nontraditional sexual behaviors. By combing through national statistics from the 1930s to the 1970s, Emory University economist Andrew Francis found that the era of modern sexuality began in the mid to late 1950s, not during the swinging '60s. While access to contraceptives may have played a role in the rise of sexual freedom, the pill wasn't actually widely accessible until the early 1970s. But immediately following the rapid decrease in syphilis-related deaths in the 1950s, the rate of risky sexual behavior went up.

Francis tracked rates of syphilis as compared to the gonorrhea incidence rate, the illegitimate birth rate and the rate of teenage births -- all indicators of more nontraditional sex. As sex outside of marriage became less of a deathtrap, people did it more.

"The case of syphilis shows that the relationship between behavior and disease is neither simple nor absolute," Francis writes in the study. "Behavior may affect the cost of disease, and also the cost of disease may affect behavior." The correlation between risky sex and decreased risk of disease has implications for the contemporary AIDS policy, the study argues. The death rates for syphilis and AIDS were on the same order of magnitude in their respective peak years, 1939 and 1995. Francis postulates that the risky behaviors encouraged by the collapse of syphilis may have contributed to the spread of HIV in later years.

"The possible relationship between the collapse of syphilis and the rise of HIV implies that optimal health policy strategy is holistic and longsighted," he writes. "To focus exclusively on the defeat of one disease can set the stage for the onset of another if preemptive measures are not taken."


Anonymous said...

I can't remember where I saw it, but somewhere I read a claim that before the mid-40s, even male homosexual circles were more sedate- sexual activity mostly consisted of hand-jobs and the like, more often than it did full-blown sodomy with hundreds of strangers.

"Francis postulates that the risky behaviors encouraged by the collapse of syphilis may have contributed to the spread of HIV in later years."

Even long before HIV showed up, lots of gay men in the 70s had severely compromised immune systems. Turns out having sex with 500 or 1,000 promiscuous strangers is a good way to catch a lot of diseases, and having 7 or 8 weird diseases at the same time tends to overwhelm even an otherwise healthy immune system:

TroperA said...

I'd heard the sexual revolution had its beginnings in World War 2, with women going to work en masse, supporting themselves without men's help and using sex to entice the most attractive men of a shrinking dating pool. I had also heard there was a severe uptick of unwed pregnancies right after WWII. It's possible female independence was the main driving force in the Sexual Revolution. The Syphilis Cure and the Pill just allowed it to continue indefinitely as people were able to avoid the traditional long term consequences of out of wedlock activity.

Robert What? said...

I think you are right that the success of penicillin with syphilis gave people a false sense of security regarding other diseases as well, especially Aids. In any case it looks like we might be rapidly approaching the end of the age of antibiotics.

Anonymous said...

What did people do before antibiotics? Surely not every time someone was injured or cut did they became infected. What about cleaning wounds and washing with alcohol?