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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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