Before Penicillin

Some strangely beautiful black and white photographs of 19th century syphilis patients from the Burns Archive and the Dittrich Medical History Centre (additional colour photographs by OG Mason, from George Henry Fox’s Photographic Illustrations of Cutaneous Syphilis (1881), some distressing, can be viewed here and here).


1,984 Irish people are recorded as dying from syphilis between 1899 and 1916 but this figure is probably significantly underreported.   Out of the 1,984, 69% were child victims of congenital syphilis transmitted from mother to child in utero.   Those children who survived, like the artist Gerard de Lairesse, painted by Rembrandt, below, were often marked for life.

The little girl in the picture by Pieter de Hooch below (click here and click again on her face for a close-up) was most likely a similar sufferer.   Her ugliness has been blamed for reducing the price of the painting; I think it not only moves the heart, but makes the work more interesting.

Syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum.  Before antibiotics, there was no effective treatment.  The path of the disease, in adults, was as follows:- an initial sore (primary syphilis), followed by a rash and fever (secondary syphilis).   After that, it could remain latent for years, maybe even decades, before entering a tertiary period of skin ulcers (gummatous syphilis, often involving loss of the nose, as shown in the print of Sir William Davenant below), neurosyphilis (affecting the brain and causing madness) or cardiovascular syphilis.

In children, congenital syphilis could manifest itself as any of the above, along with blindness, saddle nose deformation, and notched teeth known as Hutchinson’s incisors.

Because of its ability to mimic so many other conditions, syphilis can be difficult to diagnose retrospectively.    However many 19th century artists and writers, including Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec, de Maupassant, Baudelaire, Nietzche, Manet, Flaubert, Gauguin and the Van Goghs, are thought to have suffered from the disease known as ‘The Great Pretender’.

Untreated tertiary neurosyphilis kept the County Asylums going until the 1950s or so.  If you have a relative whose death certificate reads ‘General Paralysis of the Insane’ or ‘Locomotor Ataxia’, it’s quite likely that they died of syphilis.   Sorry.

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The sibling of daedalus
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41 Responses to Before Penicillin

  1. anplayer says:

    Just threw up all over the barbie. Thanks a bunch.

  2. Caeruloplasmin says:

    Maybe this is not the place to meantion STI screens……

  3. anplayer says:

    No it is not Missy. The stuff of nightmares indeed.

  4. sdaedalus says:

    I did say this blog would be darker

  5. sdaedalus says:

    Just in case you’re down the docks, lately

    Sailor’s handshake:-

    Also:- Prostitute’s pupil – the test for neurosyphilis

    Brilliant names lol.

  6. maurice says:

    Gross. “Darker” isn’t exactly how I’d describe explicit photos of gross deformities. Although the topic of syphilis in general (a present from the New World to the Old! You’re welcome!) is a fascinating and somewhat dark one. What brought you to post on it? Some geneological research, or just a morbid frame of mind today-?

  7. sdaedalus says:

    It was the photos that caught my interest. I think they’re beautifully executed, though the kids in particular are very sad.

    Syphilis was a huge issue pre-penicillin – you find it alluded to in so many books. James Joyce (or at least some of his biographers) thought his eye disease (and his daughter’s madness) was caused by congenital syphilis, through his father’s youthful exploits. This seems to have been rubbish. There was a lot of confusion over congenital syphilis, with people thinking it could be passed on from generation to generation – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a Sherlock Holmes story based on this fallacy.

  8. Lily says:

    I saw this the other night but couldn’t comment as the pic and people’s comments about the little girl broke my little heart.

    Nice to see anplayer back though.

  9. sdaedalus says:

    Nice to see anplayer back though,

    Yes, and how appropriate that he’d make his reappearance on a post devoted to V.D. :-)

    I’m taking down the photos of the kids as they make me too sad and will just link to them instead.

  10. anplayer says:

    do ya think this would make a nice public health campaign? Backs of toilet doors in ucd perhaps?

    I can see the caption already: “Syphilis: Guaranteed to scare the sh*t out of you.”

    • Caeruloplasmin says:

      I like, perhaps a ucd blogger will pick up on it and start an un/official back of toilet door campaign…

  11. STI is no laffing matter as many patents are allergic to penisillin.

    • Caeruloplasmin says:

      Was not saying it was laughing matter was merely trying to raise awareness and encourage sti screening… May the buyer beware!

  12. El Sido says:

    I knew of a fellow called “Sterile Ste”. He went for a dirty week in Bangkok and managed to catch some new variant of syphilis, that was resistant to antibiotics. I think he had to spend 18 months in hospital or being sick or something.

  13. Caeruloplasmin says:


    You’re right, what would I know. I’m only a dentist, we only learnt about diseases of the mouth… best left to another day. Hopefully there’s a junior doctor out there who can help us out.

  14. maurice says:

    Intriguing. Lovers’ quarrel from around the globe.

  15. SDaedalus says:

    Huge amount of hits from Ireland generally on this post, odd that, never realised syphilis was such a popular topic here…

  16. Blue Blazer says:

    “.. I’m taking down..” “..I did say..” I was deprived your example of your Site displaying children in nightmarish conditions. Therefore…….well…..

  17. Blue Blazer says:

    And to think,your Site was reknowned for its clever editing of …uncomfortableness.

  18. Blue Blazer says:

    I am unaware of Your previous Site displaying anything …….well…..(blank)…..involving children.

  19. Blue Blazer says:

    My loss,I guess……

  20. sdaedalus says:

    I can’t remember much further back (and too lazy to look) but I did a post on Dublin children earlier this year, using old photos from the National Library website. If you click on the fourth link in the post there are a couple of photos of some poor unfortunate kids with their noses eaten away by congenital syphilis, these are the ones I originally had up but it made me too sad to see them every time I logged in.

  21. Blue Blazer says:

    Since you want to go Irish “darker (ness)” , and have an interest in obscure movies as well, you should watch ‘Gone Baby Gone’. It concerns the fake-Irish in Boston. It came out about five years ago and noone went to see it. There are no stars and it is completely a plot and character driven movie. It is,on the surface, a detective/mystery story about the abduction of a little four-year-old fake-Irish girl. But there is a HELL of a lot going on that isn’t revealed unto the final five minutes of the movie. When I saw this movie in the theatre,the pure hate toward the little girl’s mother was amazing! And very real. Not in the cartoonish Darth Vader way,but in a reality-based way. In America this movie has yet to replace ‘The Quiet Man’ as ..whatever..

  22. Blue Blazer says:

    “Huge amounts of hits from Ireland..’ Yeah,yeah,yeah…You should still be ashamed of yourself for displaying these poor souls. I never understood why you deleted Yourself those other two times,but this Post STILL justifies yet another Deletion…if you consider it neccesary…

  23. So Tragic, thought-provoking post that makes one appreciate modern medicine.

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