Syphilis & Prostitution

By Caroline Alavanja

The diagnoses of syphilis was seen as a scarlet letter in England during the 19th and 20th centuries. This disease was strongly associated with women, specifically prostitutes. This disease was blamed on prostitutes, with some physicians and public health officials claiming that they were the only source. Because this illness was viewed as damaging to one’s reputation, many were reluctant to be diagnosed by a physician and seek treatment. For those who did seek treatment, they refused to have syphilis indicated as the main cause of their illness within their medical records or they withheld their name. However, because prostitutes were viewed as the main cause of the syphilis epidemic, they were forced to be tested against their will. 

According to Anna Faherty:

Syphilis was first associated with prostitution and supposed depraved behaviour soon after it appeared in Europe at the end of the 1400s. Originally known as ‘the pox’, the name syphilis is derived from the title character of a Latin poem of 1530 in which a sinner is punished for betraying the god Jupiter. When it became apparent that it could be transmitted through sexual contact, it was interpreted as divine punishment for promiscuity.

Anna Faherty, “The prostitute whose pox inspired feminists

Around the early 1970s, a medical officer for Tower Hamlets, London Borough, expressed the concern of the syphilis epidemic that was occurring within the community of Pakistan visitors. These men were looking for “female companionship” as their wives were back home in Pakistan. They were soon connected with local prostitutes in a private manner in which they would not be able to identify them. As the syphilis epidemic spread, these men were contacted and asked to identify the women but were unable to. Instead the medical officer decided to round up the local prostitutes from the area that they could find and have them tested. The medical officer concluded that eight of these prostitutes were tested positive for syphilis and that they must be the soul carriers of this infectious disease. They were believed to have possibly infected hundreds of men. 

This was not the first time that female prostitutes were the only ones blamed for being the main cause behind a syphilis outbreak. Another case recorded in 1875, explains a syphilis diagnosis of a young 19-year-old girl. They would not list the name of this young girl but only her initials on the medical reports. This patient was listed as “A.G” and within her medical records it was noted that she was a prostitute.

When A G started working as a prostitute, ‘fallen women’ were thought to have a high risk of contracting syphilis not – as might be expected – due to their increased chance of being exposed to infection, but because of their inherent immorality. If the disease was a direct result of promiscuous intercourse, prostitutes were nothing less than a festering sore on society. Like plague-infected rats or cholera-swamped sewers, women who made their living selling sex were a problem that had to be monitored and improved.(WC)

Anna Faherty, “The prostitute whose pox inspired feminists

“A.G.” as all other prostitutes, was of course blamed for her spreading of syphilis, however, why was it not decided that the men who slept with these women shouldn’t be held accountable for their spreading of syphilis as well? 

The Contagious Diseases Acts was first implemented in the 1860s through out England and Ireland. These acts were intended to be used to protect their military men from contracting syphilis. Police officers were then given authority that they may stop anyone that may think is a prostitute. They would then submit these women to a “voluntary” medical inspection. However, word traveled fast that there was nothing quite voluntary about it and if you did not comply you could be arrested. The women were inspected with what that they referred to as, “The government’s penis” and the “instrument of rape.” If these women were positive for syphilis they were sent to institutions where they could be isolated from society and unable to infect any others. However, no men were held accountable for their spreading of syphilis that they contracted from prostitutes. As time went on and syphilis still spread, it was clear that other carriers had to hold responsibility. 

According to the MOH for Islington in 1913):

“In his report, Dr. Johnstone emphasizes the practical point that Syphilis is spread less by habitual or professional prostitutes, than by women who are only occasional prostitutes and by men ‘who have neglected to secure competent advice or to observe it when given.’ Hence it is impracticable to attempt to repress this disease by restrictive measures of the type of the former Contagious Diseases Acts.”

MOH Islington 1913

Of course prostitutes seemed to be the easiest to blame, however, the men who interacted with these women spread it to other women and some even to their wives. This is another area in where the social judgement of syphilis shifted. Women who had only been sexually active with their husbands were contracting it and unfortunately spreading it to their children through childbirth. 

Primary Sources

MOH Tower Hamlets 1970

MOH Heston and Isleworth 1914

MOH Islington 1913

MOH Greenwich 1971

MOH County Council 1920

MOH Stepney 1902

MOH Richmond Upon Thames 1965

MOH West Ham 1950

Secondary sources

Faherty, Anna. The prostitute whose pox inspired feminists. Wellcome Collection Blog. 20 July 2017.

McAllister, Marie E. “Stories of the Origin of Syphilis in Eighteenth-Century England: Science, Myth, and Prejudice.” Eighteenth-Century Life, vol. 24 no. 1, 2000, p. 22-44.

Szreter, Simon. “The Prevalence of Syphilis in England and Wales on the Eve of the Great War: Re-visiting the Estimates of the Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases 1913-1916.Social history of medicine : the journal of the Society for the Social History of Medicine vol. 27,3 (2014): 508-529.