The venereal poison: a historic and genetic analysis of categories of sexually transmitted diseases, 1718-1850

Osis, Francis (2021) The venereal poison: a historic and genetic analysis of categories of sexually transmitted diseases, 1718-1850. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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During the first half of the eighteenth century, the monolithic term ‘venereal disease’ or lues venerea covered all signs and symptoms of diseases transmitted through sex. In 1766, Francis Balfour – a medical student at the University of Edinburgh – suggested that lues venerea could actually be divided into two separate diseases, each caused by a unique contagion: syphilis and gonorrhoea. This opened a debate that continued for decades, between the monists, who believed that syphilis and gonorrhoea were merely symptoms of the same disease, and the dualists, who believed that the two should be separated.

In this thesis, I investigate how the dualist theory was introduced, debated and finally accepted in Britain, particularly London and Edinburgh. Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift framework is loosely used as a lens to investigate this process. In the decades prior to 1766, changes in how doctors approached venereal disease lay the necessary foundation for the dualist doctrine. This period also saw a set of crises, both scientific and social; the persistent inability to successfully treat venereal disease, the increase in demand for treatment as patient numbers rose, and an increased perception as syphilis of a moral issue via the Reformation Societies. Immediately after the introduction of the dualist doctrine, those who accepted the new doctrine were all found within the social circle of Balfour. Doctors outside this network did not begin to accept the new theory until the dualists began to produce experimental evidence in their favour, showing the shift in priorities between early and late adopters of a theory from a matter of faith and social trust, to one of hard evidence.

The ability to separate gonorrhoea and syphilis, however, was confounded by the inability to define venereal disease. This difficulty is reflected in how lues venerea was represented with anatomical specimens. A comparison of six medical museums in London and Edinburgh shows that specimens emphasised the lesions of disease. This encouraged a flexible approach which prioritised signs and symptoms, rather than through disease categorisation. The difficulty in diagnosing venereal disease is further highlighted by genetic analysis of one of these anatomical specimens, which finds a possible underlying case of nasal infection and food poisoning rather than syphilis. This work demonstrates the importance of shared language and agreed definitions when introducing new scientific theories.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: This work was supported by funding from the Leverhulme Trust.
Keywords: anatomy, history of medicine, syphilis, sexually transmitted diseases, museums, medical museums, ancient DNA, genomics, material culture.
Subjects: A General Works > AM Museums (General). Collectors and collecting (General)
D History General and Old World > D History (General) > D204 Modern History
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
Q Science > QH Natural history > QH426 Genetics
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Humanities > History
Supervisor's Name: Cohn, Professor Samuel K. and Herzyk, Dr. Pawel and Reilly, Ms. Maggie
Date of Award: 2021
Depositing User: Dr Francis Osis
Unique ID: glathesis:2021-82215
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 26 May 2021 10:05
Last Modified: 26 May 2021 10:11
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.82215

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