Syphilis: A Little Valentine’s Day Love Story


Photo Credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of England 

We don’t know much about her. We don’t even know her name. What we do know is that the woman who wore the above prosthetic in the mid-19th century was suffering from a severe case of syphilis.

Before the discovery of penicillin in 1928, syphilis was an incurable disease. Its symptoms were as terrifying as they were unrelenting. Those who suffered from it long enough could expect to develop unsightly skin ulcers, paralysis, gradual blindness, dementia and “saddle nose,” a grotesque deformity which occurs when the bridge of the nose caves into the face.

stlcfo00239This deformity was so common amongst those suffering from the pox (as it was sometimes called) that “no nose clubs” sprung up in London. On 18 February 1874, the Star reported: “Miss Sanborn tells us that an eccentric gentleman, having taken a fancy to see a large party of noseless persons, invited every one thus afflicted, whom he met in the streets, to dine on a certain day at a tavern, where he formed them into a brotherhood.”[1] The man, who assumed the name Mr. Crampton for these clandestine parties, entertained his “noseless’” friends every month until he died a year later, at which time the group “unhappily dissolved.”[2]

The 19th century was particularly rife with syphilis. Because of its prevalence, both physicians and surgeons treated victims of the disease. Many treatments involved the use of mercury, hence giving rise to the saying: “One night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.” Mercury could be administered in the form of calomel (mercury chloride), an ointment, a steam bath or pill. Unfortunately, the side effects could be as painful and terrifying as the disease itself. Many patients who underwent mercury treatments suffered from extensive tooth loss, ulcerations and neurological damage. In many cases, people died from significant mercury poisoning.

For those determined to avoid the pox altogether, condoms made from animal membrane and secured with a silk ribbon were available [below], but these were outlandishly expensive. Moreover, many men shunned them for being uncomfortable and cumbersome. In 1717, the surgeon, Daniel Turner, wrote:

The Condum being the best, if not only Preservative our Libertines have found out at present; and yet by reason of its blunting the Sensation, I have heard some of them acknowledge, that they had often chose to risk a Clap, rather than engage cum Hastis sic clypeatis [with spears thus sheathed].[3]

13Everyone blamed each other for the burdensome condom. The French called it “la capote anglaise” (the English cape), while the English called it the “French letter.” Even more unpleasant was the fact that once one procured a condom, he was expected to use it repeatedly. Unsurprisingly, syphilis continued to rage despite the growing availability of condoms during the Victorian period.

Which brings me back to the owner of the prosthetic nose. Eventually, she lost her teeth and palate after prolonged exposure to mercury treatments. Her husband—who may have been the source of her suffering—finally died from the disease, leaving her a widow. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the poor, unfortunate Mrs X.

According to records at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, the woman found another suitor despite her deformities. After the wedding, she sought out the physician, James Merryweather, and sold the contraption to him for £3. The reason? Her new husband liked her just the way she was – no nose and all!

And that, kind readers, is a true Valentine’s Day love story…Ignore the part where she most certainly transmitted the disease to her new lover.

If you enjoy my blog, please consider supporting my content by clicking HERE.

1. Origin of the No Nose Club. Star, Issue 1861 (18 February 1874), p. 3.
2. Ibid.
3. Daniel Turner, Syphilis: A Practical Treatise on the Venereal Disease (1717), p. 74.

By |2017-02-14T12:52:14+00:00February 14th, 2017|Casebooks|5 Comments

The Syphilitic Whores of Georgian London

harrisPeople think I’m obsessed with syphilis, and maybe I am. But it’s only because of my recent indoctrination into 18th-century history by aficionados of the period, such as Lucy Inglis, Adrian Teal and Rob Lucas.  I can’t read 10 pages of a medical casebook without coming across a reference to lues venerea. By the end of the century, London was literally crawling with the pox.

And it’s no surprise. Sexual promiscuity was as much a part of Georgian England as were powdered wigs and opium. For a few pennies, a gentleman could pick up Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, or Man of Pleasure’s Kalendar—a pocket guide to London’s prostitutes published annually starting in 1771—and peruse it as he might do a fine wine list.

For three guineas, a man could partake in the pleasures provided by Miss L—st—r at No. 6 Union Street, whose ‘neighbouring hills [are] full ripe for manual pressure, firm, and elastic, and heave at every touch.’ [1] If three guineas were too much, one could always spend a third of that for a night with Miss H—ll—nd at No. 2 York Street, who, ‘tho’ only seventeen and short, is very fat and corpulent…a luscious treat to the voluptuary.’ [2]  And for those who fancied a woman ‘rather above the common height’, they could visit Miss S—ms at No. 82 Queen Ann’s Street East, who frequently attracted lovers of a ‘diminutive size’ who loved ‘surmounting such a fine, tall woman.’ [3]

L0033923 A prostitute leading an old man into the bedroomThe guidebook wasn’t all slap and tickle, though. Hidden within these pages were warnings about the dangers of sleeping with diseased prostitutes.  Military men were cautioned against Matilda Johnson, since ‘it is thought by some experienced officers, that her citadel is in danger, on account of a quantity of fiery combustible matter which is lodged in the covered way.’ Some warnings were not so subtle (or hilarious). The guidebook alerts its readers to Miss Young, who had ‘very lately had the folly and wickedness to leave a certain hospital, before the cure for a certain distemper which she had was completed.’ The book ominously adds that she has ‘thrown her contaminated carcass on the town again.’ [4]

Yes, syphilis was ubiquitous in 18th-century London. Aside from abstaining or entering into a monogamous relationship with a healthy partner, there was very little one could do to protect oneself from the pox. Condoms, though available during this period, were rarely employed. When used, they were frequently reused multiple times, defeating their purpose as safeguards against contamination.

SyphilisThat said, the telltale signs of the disease could often be seen on those suffering from the pox, allowing the astute observer to steer clear of infected persons. In this wax moulage (left) by the talented artist, Nicole Antebi, you can see the effects of the disease on the face and mouth. Blemishes such as these came to be associated with prostitution. Georgian women went to great lengths to cover these marks with ‘beauty spots’ made of fine black velvet, or mouse skin.

Those who suffered from the pox often turned to surgeons for help. Before the discovery of penicillin, syphilis was an incurable (and ultimately fatal) disease. The longer it went on, the worse the symptoms became. In addition to unsightly skin ulcers like the ones mentioned above, sufferers could experience paralysis, blindness, dementia and ‘saddle nose‘, a grotesque deformity which occurs when the bridge of the nose caves into the face.

L0034508 A patient suffering from the adverse effects of mercury treatMany treatments involved the use of mercury, which could be administered in the form of calomel (mercury chloride), an ointment, a steam bath or pill. Unfortunately, the side effects could be as painful and terrifying as the disease itself (see illustration, right, of patient suffering from over-exposure to mercury). Many patients who underwent such treatments suffered from extensive tooth loss, ulcerations and neurological damage. In many cases, people died from mercury poisoning. Indeed, it’s hard to fault Miss Young for throwing her ‘contaminated carcass on the town again’ after refusing to continue treatment that most likely included mercury.

Prostitutes bore the brunt of it when it came to syphilis in Georgian London. Yet despite the dangers, women entered into the profession at an astonishing rate. An estimated 1 in 5 women were ‘Ladies of the Night’ during this period. Some entered the sex trade as young as 12 years of age; and many could expect to make as much as £400 per year. [5]

Still, the financial advantages of prostitution meant little if one contracted the deadly disease. The two syphilitic women mentioned above did not appear in later editions of Harris’s List. Their fates were sealed once their secrets had been exposed. No doubt countless other women suffered the same future after they became infected, losing not only their livelihoods, but also their lives to this dreadful epidemic.

Am I obsessed with syphilis? Yes. But for good reason!

1. Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies or Man of Pleasure’s Kalendar for the Year (1788), p. 16.
2. Ibid., p. 18.
3. Ibid., p. 36
4. These two examples come from Harris’s List (1779); however, I originally found them in Wendy Moore’s excellent book, The Knife Man: Blood, Body-Snatching and The Birth of Modern Science (2005), p. 127.
5. These facts and figures can be found in Dan Cruickshank’s book, The Secret History of Georgian London (2010).

By |2014-03-03T10:22:35+00:00March 3rd, 2014|Casebooks|22 Comments

Ray-Ban’s Predecessor? A Brief History of Tinted Spectacles

L0059071 Turn pin spectacles, steel wire, eye preservers, double foldA recent conversation with Matthew Ward from History Needs You piqued my curiosity about a pair of spectacles in the Wellcome Collection [pictured left]. At first glance, you may think these oddly tinted glasses belong to the wardrobe department of a whimsical Tim Burton film. And yet, these glasses are over 200 years old, made not for the likes of Johnny Depp, but rather an 18th-century gentleman.

This got me wondering: were these Georgian spectacles a precursor to modern-day sunglasses? Or were they something altogether different?

Here’s what I discovered.

grabimg.phpIn 1750, the optician, James Ayscough, began making double-hinged spectacles with tinted lenses, like the ones pictured above. Ayscough felt that white lenses created an an ‘offensive glaring Light, very painful and prejudicial to the Eyes.’ Instead, he advised ‘green or blue glass, tho’ it tinge every Object with its own Colour.’ This would take ‘off the glaring Light from the Paper,’ and render ‘every Object so easy and pleasant, that the tenderest Eye, may thro’ it view any thing intently, without Pain.’ [1]

Were these avant-garde spectacles the Ray-Bans of its day? Not quite.

Ayscough didn’t devise these lenses to protect his patients’ eyes from the sun. Rather, he believed that white glass had a ‘softer Body than any other’ and therefore would ‘not receive so true a Figure in the polishing, as a Glass of a harder Nature.’ This resulted in a distorted lens full of ‘Specks and Veins’ which would only further impair a person’s already imperfect vision. Ayscough held tinted glass in such esteem that he even recommended it be used for the construction of telescopes and microscopes. [2]

While Ayscough double-hinged design was something of a new rage in the 18th century, he was not the first to use tinted glass when making spectacles (although he was one of the first to write extensively on the subject). Already by the mid-1600s, people were purchasing and wearing tinted glasses throughout England.

One such person was the famous diarist, Samuel Pepys.

Many people believe that coloured spectacles were prescribed to syphilitic patients who suffered from photosensitivity brought on by the advancement of the disease into the ocular region. There has been much speculation on whether Pepys—whose own brother died of syphilis in 1663—also suffered from lues venerea, and whether this led to his decision to purchase green tinted glasses from the spectacle-maker, John Turlington.

00Although it makes for an intriguing tale, Pepys never mentions the glasses in relation to syphilis (nor does he allude to any syphilitic symptoms other than a mouth ulcer in 1660). Rather, he writes that his ‘eyes are very bad, and will be worse if not helped.’ And so on 24 December 1666, ‘I did buy me a pair of green spectacles, to see whether they will help my eyes.’ [3]

For Pepys, the purchase seems to have come from a desire to alleviate eye soreness and nothing else.

Moreover, a quick scan through 18th-century medical texts on syphilis reveals no mention of tinted glasses.  In Daniel Turner’s Syphilis: A Practical Dissertation on the Venereal Disease (1717), he doesn’t even discuss eye-related disorders associated with the pox. Contrastingly, in the Treatise of the Venereal Disease (1789), the author correctly notes that syphilis can cause inflammation of the eye, but he offers no specific remedy for this condition. Similarly, in William Buchan’s Observations Concerning the Prevention and Cure of the Veneral Disease (1796), coloured spectacles are not referenced. Instead, Buchan recommends blistering plasters behind the ear or on the temple to alleviate ocular problems related to the advancement of syphilis.

It should also be noted that spectacles, like the ones featured in this article, would have been fairly expensive. Even if medical practitioners had offered them as treatment for photosensitivity brought on by ocular syphilis, the majority of those suffering from the disease would have been unable to afford them.


1. James Ayscough, A Short Account of the Nature and Use of Spectacles (1750), p 13.
2. Ibid.
3. Diary of Samuel Pepys, vol. 48 (24 December 1666). For more on Pepys’s eye disorders, see Graham W. Wilson, ‘The Big Brown Eyes of Samuel Pepys,’ in Archives of Ophthalmology, 120 (July 2002): pp. 969-975. For information on Pepys’ general health, see D. Powers, ‘The Medical History of Mr and Mrs Samuel Pepys,’ in the Lancet (1895): pp. 1357- 1360.

By |2013-06-21T16:00:17+00:00June 21st, 2013|Casebooks|20 Comments