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Great moments in syphilis


Today being the last teaching day of fall semester, I finally get to reveal to my students the outcome of the American Civil War. Ordinarily, I would resort to boring clichés about how the Union won the war only to squander the aftermath, or how blood drawn by the lash was repaid with blood drawn by the sword. This year, however, I will depart from mindless tradition and explain that the war’s true victor was (as always) venereal disease, and that every drop of blood drawn by the lash was repaid by lymphatic fluid lanced from infected your comrade’s syphilitic pustules. Apparently, there are hidden risks in trying not to die of smallpox.

During the American Civil War, vaccination was not easily achieved—though it was highly desirable. It was difficult to either find a cow or a suitable person with an active pustule that could be harvested to vaccinate others. Smallpox outbreaks were common on both sides, as were resulting deaths. According to the The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine by Glenna R Schroeder-Lein, the most accepted method was to look for small children to infect with cowpox. Once infected, doctors would wait seven or eight days for a pustule to fully form, puncture it, and take the lymph (fluid) from it. Alternatively, they would wait for a scab to form and then take it out.

Though you were probably hoping, as I was, to learn that Civil War armies toted with them small batches of scabby Irish orphans who would be kept in tiny plague wagons and harvested as needed for their scabs and pus, history is not here to gratify your desires. Instead, soldiers simply jabbed one another with rusty knives, nails, and metal clothespins to release the sweet, infectious nectar within. If this sounds like a win-win for everyone, alas, there was a catch.

. . . . In the transmission of lymph into the bloodstream, soldiers would often get infected by their fellow soldier’s diseases, particularly syphilis. . . . [T]here is an unfortunate similarity between smallpox and syphilis. This meant that some soldiers, untrained in medical matters, could easily confuse a syphilis pustule with a cowpox one. Thinking they could be immune to the terrifying smallpox, many Civil War soldiers accidentally infected themselves with syphilis.

I will note that my browser history now includes Google Images searches for “syphilis pustules,” which I suspect is quite nearly the most 2016 thing I can imagine.

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  • Warren Terra

    You just delight at every opportunity to bring a ray of sunshine into your students’ lives, don’t you?

    • No Longer Middle Aged Man

      Yeah, my last two class meetings of the semester are tonight and tomorrow and he’s just totally raised the bar on trolling the students. Way back when these always used to be the days for sweetness and light since we’d do the course evals, but they’re now done online and since I’ve gotten the last promotion that I’m ever going to get, plus the new survey instrument is dumb, it’s real hard to much care. Up to now I’ve simply been telling students that my response to their inevitable “too much reading” comments has been “bad news, you’re in college/grad school, try film school if you want less reading.” But damn, syphilis pustules means that I’ve got to up my game to keep up with the Joneses.

  • lizzie

    “Syphilis Pustule” also works as yet another affectionate nickname for the president elect.

    • Rob in CT

      I half expected this to be about him (after all, his battle with venereal disease was “his Vietnam”). Alas.

      • Warren Terra

        I thought it was his battle with the likelihood of venereal disease, not that he’d admitted contracting anything.

        • Rob in CT

          Sorry, yes, that’s what I meant, but was having trouble with LGM (again) so I rushed the comment.

      • N__B

        You walked into the country
        Like you were walking onto a yacht
        Your hat strategically screamed MAGA
        Your skin, it was apricot
        You had one eye on the mirror
        And watched yourself yell hot
        And all nazis dreamed that they’d be your partner
        They’d be your partner, and
        You’re so vain
        You probably think this song is about you
        You’re so vain,
        I’ll bet you think this song is about you
        Don’t you?
        Don’t you?

        • Replace one “You’re so vain” with “You’re sovereign” and you’ve got a guar-an-teed hit there!

  • Denverite

    Thinking they could be immune to the terrifying smallpox, many Civil War soldiers accidentally infected themselves with syphilis.

    I’m like 90% sure this was just a story they came up with to tell their wives back home.

  • BiloSagdiyev

    Were mercury pills still a “treatment” by this point?

    • DrDick

      I believe that was still in use up through WWI. There was also inserting red hot silver wire in the uretha.

      • chemtrails r us

        I just finally registered to comment on this site because WWI VD treatments happen to fall within my wheelhouse, and it is not a knowledge base I get to often utilize.

        Yes, mercury pills were still in use through WWI, and there were still many, many cases of soldiers ending up with mercury poisoning as a result. However, even given this danger, the vast majority of men who came up for treatment for VD during the war opted for mercury pills over the irrigation method. Later in the war the various militaries got around to attempting a disinfecting method immediately post-sex which involved bidet-like devices. (I will note that these methods were true of the various combatant nations other than Russia and the Ottoman Empire; for these two, they may’ve been doing the same, but there’s a lack of documentary evidence as to what was going on.)

  • (((Malaclypse)))

    Another Day, Another Pointless Atrocity.

  • That’s not a pustule, it’s a chancre you wanker!

    • Warren Terra

      Not “wankre”?

      • LNM_in_LA

        I logged in just to say:


  • Bubblegum Tate

    Finally, a chance to bust out one of my all-time favorite Strangers With Candy quotes!

    Jerri Blank: Do a lot of the people die of the syphilis?
    Chuck Noblet: Oh, absolutely. Historically, syphilis is right up there with Germans. It wiped out the Romanovs, it decimated our fleet at Pearl Harbor, and of course, Fidel Castro impersonated Marilyn Monroe and gave President Kennedy a case of syphilis so severe that eventually it blew the back of his head off.

  • q-tip

    I think looking at little curiosities is often a good way to approach These Big Historical Events. So bravo!

    (In a high school history class next week, where we’re talking about the late 19th century USA, I plan on spending a tiny-extra amount of time on the Ghost Dance movement. Not that it accomplished much, or lasted long, but in a way it says a lot about what was going on – and forgetting about it, and these other “little” things, means forgetting a piece of what mattered to the people we read about. Including those who underwent awful syphilis treatments.)

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