‘She supposes herself cured’: Almshouse women and venereal disease in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Philadelphia

Cahif, Jacqueline (2010) ‘She supposes herself cured’: Almshouse women and venereal disease in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Philadelphia. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Printed Thesis Information: https://eleanor.lib.gla.ac.uk/record=b2842969


This dissertation will explore the lives, experiences and medical histories of diseased almshouse women living in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Philadelphia. During this period Philadelphia matured from being a relatively small colonial city into a major manufacturing metropolis. Venereal disease was omnipresent in America’s major port city, and diseased residents were surrounded by a thriving medical marketplace.

Historians have identified the “who and why” of prostitution, however the scope of the prostitute experience has yet to be fully explored. This dissertation will address a considerable and important gap in the historiography of prostitutes’ lives as it actually affected women. Venereal disease was an ever present threat for women engaging in prostitution, however casual, and historians have yet to illuminate the narrower aspects of the already shadowy lives of such women. Whether intentionally or by omission, historians have often denied agency to prostitutes and the diseased women associated with them, the effect of which has drained this group of sometimes assertive women of any individuality. While some women lived in circumstances and carried out activities that came to the attention of the courts, others lived more understated lives. A large proportion of the women in this study led the lives of “ordinary” women, and prostitution per se was not the only focal point of their existence. For many almshouse women their only unifying variables were disease, time and place. While prostitutes were often victims of economic adversity, they made a choice to engage in prostitution in the face of hardship and sickness.

The overall aim is to consider the diseased female patient’s perspective, in an effort to illuminate how she confronted venereal infection within the context of the medical marketplace. This includes the actions she took, and how she negotiated with those in positions of authority, whose aim was sometimes -although not always- to curtail her activities. As many diseased women became more acquainted with the poor relief system of medical welfare, they were able to manipulate the lack of coherent strategy “from above”, which left room for assertive behaviour “from below”.

Diseased women did not always use the almshouse as a last resort-institution as historians often have us believe. Many selected the infirmary wing as opposed to other outlets of healthcare in Philadelphia, a city that was often labelled the crucible of medicine. There is also an oft-believed notion that prostitutes and lower class women suffering from venereal disease were habitually saturated with mercury “punitive-style” as treatment for their condition. This argument does not hold for those women who were cared for in the venereal ward of the almshouse’s infirmary wing. Broadly speaking, almshouse doctors did not sanction drastic depletion and the use of mercury compounds unless deemed absolutely necessary. Many almshouse doctors adopted a different therapeutic approach as compared with that of Benjamin Rush and his followers who dominated therapy at the Pennsylvania Hospital, a voluntary institution mostly closed off to venereal women. Such medical differences reflected wider transformations in ideas of disease causation, therapeutic approaches, medical education as well as doctor-patient relationships.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: venereal disease, alsmhouse, prostitutes, therapuetics, Philadelphia
Subjects: R Medicine > RA Public aspects of medicine
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
H Social Sciences > HQ The family. Marriage. Woman
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > Adam Smith Business School > Economics
Supervisor's Name: Newman, Professor Simon and Dupree, Professor Marguerite
Date of Award: 2010
Depositing User: Ms Jacqueline Cahif
Unique ID: glathesis:2010-2303
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 25 Jan 2011
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 13:53
URI: https://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/2303

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