Venereal Disease Education

By Jack Wood

Caution against sexually transmitted disease.
Colour lithograph after A. Games, 1941. Wellcome Images.

Before being known as sexually transmitted infections, the term venereal disease was used and traditionally referred to syphilis and gonorrhea. While knowledge of syphilis and gonorrhea was widespread in the early twentieth cenury, their prevention was not widely discussed throughout London. Just as the terms changed for these diseases, so did the perception on the best ways to prevent their spread in the United Kingdom. Reports from the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) from 1848 to 1972 shed light on some of the changes that occurred in how the country dealt with increasing cases of these diseases, particularly with the introduction of sex education. In addition to governmental reforms, the media began to establish new viewpoints that helped to shift the public opinion on sex education and the venereal disease prevention.

Sex education and voluntary prevention of syphilis and gonorrhea was very limited in the 1800s and even into the early 1900s. No specific mentions of education on venereal disease were made in the MOH until 1959, but there were governmental mandates created to help reduce the incidence of the diseases. One very impactful piece of early legislation was the Contagious Disease Acts which sought to prevent the spread of venereal diseases to the British armed forces. The law, which was first passed in 1864 then later reformed in 1866 and 1869, specifically targeted women and forced them to have inspections if they were suspected of engaging in prostitution. If the physician diagnosed them with a venereal disease, they would be forced to receive treatment at a hospital. The Acts came with heavy protest as men were never subject to inspection. Eventually, the Contagious Disease Acts were repealed in 1886. Even though they were inherently flawed, they did resemble an attempt to limit the spread of venereal disease.

After the Acts were repealed, the British position on venereal disease prevention started to become more voluntary. However, this change was not accompanied by an increase in education, for the public or medical professionals, until the 1910s and 1920s. People in the public still believed in the folklore surrounding the diseases as nothing was in place to inform them otherwise. In 1917, the Public Health Act came into effect and the National Council or Combatting Venereal Disease was formed. These attempted to bring education on these diseases, but the public still had moral reservations about discussing these topics. An education for medical professionals came along with the campaign for the public. A 1920 MOH report from the London County Council discussed strategies to help properly educate medical students on venereal diseases which was not being done before. It included defining venereal diseases as their own specialty, and not a “sub-department” of other specialties. Medical students were also incentivized to attend venereal disease clinics and devoted a larger period to their study.

Times began to change during and after the second World War as educational campaigns were started through the press and in the communities. The incidence of venereal diseases had risen significantly in these years and the Ministry of Health wanted to tackle the public’s lack of education about prevention. Multiple prominent newspapers were approached about publishing this information, but it was met with skepticism. One national newspaper did begin to circulate this educational propaganda which began nationwide education on venereal diseases through the media. In London County Council MOH reports from the 1940s, a discussion was started between the Minister of Health and local officials to decide how to best spread information on venereal disease. Railway stations agreed to display posters that gave directions to treatment facilities. Near the end of the 1940s, a more sophisticated system was in place than before. The London County Council had arranged for lectures and presentations on sex education while also providing free literature on venereal diseases. Propaganda on venereal disease education was continued at this time. As more knowledge became available, the public perception surrounding these diseases improved, which would start to allow their discussion to spread through many methods.

After the initial propaganda of the 1940s, sex education appeared much more frequently in the MOH reports from 1959 to 1972 in a range of counties. Sex education and venereal disease education started off as lectures in this period that members of the community would attend. These courses could be for either students or for adults and may have been paired with topics such as home economics or “Human Relationships.” Although these courses were introduced, the “emotional content” of the courses made them a sensitive subject. Sex education courses in schools became more prevalent in the 1960s as discussions on how to best present the information continued in the country. Work was done to change the attitudes toward sex in the period to a more moralistic and responsible view on sex. The first two years of 1970s saw an increase in the incidence of venereal disease as young people became more promiscuous due to the availability of contraceptives. Because of this, there was a call for more education on venereal disease as young people still didn’t understand the diseases. Posters and courses were continued with sex education as a part of the biology curriculum and a VD project was in place between Lambeth and Wandsworth. A system was then in place to educate the population about these diseases and this system could grow in the future.

A boy casting the shadow of an adult, referring to the danger of inherited venereal disease. Colour lithograph after Reginald Mount. Wellcome Images.

As the stigmas surrounding venereal diseases changed over time, so did the education and discussions on the topic. This allowed a positive change away from the compulsory legislation in the 1800s which isolated people who were suspected of infection to state programs that aimed to prevent infection. As the media started to help spread awareness during and after World War II, sex education was introduced to schools and more projects were being created to help lower the incidence of venereal disease in Britain, with the most action being taken the mid-1900s.