Seminar 2: ‘Sex, health and state-supported treatment for venereal diseases in England, 1918–39’

‘Sex, health and state-supported treatment for venereal diseases in
England, 1918–39’

The second HSMT seminar of Michaelmas Term will take place at 16.00 on Monday 17th October (Week 2) in the Lecture Theatre of the History Faculty on George Street and will be delivered by Anne Hanley.

venereal-diseaseAnne Hanley is a Junior Research Fellow of New College, Oxford. Her research interests are in healthcare and welfare during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, along with closely related themes in gender, political and economic history. She has written a soon-to-be-published monograph, Medicine, Knowledge and Venereal Diseases in England, 1886–1916, which contributes to broader debates in the social history of medicine and the sociology of scientific knowledge. The book focuses on an age before penicillin and the NHS, when developments in pathology, symptomology and aetiology were transforming clinical practice, and systematically examines how doctors, nurses and midwives grappled with new knowledge and laboratory-based technologies in their fight against venereal diseases in voluntary hospitals, general practice and Poor Law institutions.

In 1916 the Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases laid down a comprehensive series of recommendations, representing the first systematised state intervention for three decades to prevent the spread of infection among civilians. What followed were free, universal healthcare provisions for persons suffering from syphilis and gonorrhoea. At the heart of this new scheme was a nation-wide network of clinics, which offered unprecedented diagnostic and therapeutic services while also promising confidentiality for infected persons. Anyone could access any clinic in any part of the country. Patients could walk in off the street or they could be referred by a GP for treatment. Between 1918 and 1939, these clinics saw thousands of patients, many of whom had previously fallen through the cracks of an over-stretched and under-resourced healthcare system. This seminar considers the organisation, objectives and accessibility of the new clinics. It charts some of the many ideological, political, institutional, administrative and infrastructural stumbling blocks faced during their early years—from their initially fraught relationship with hospitals, to the lack of adequately trained medical officers to staff the clinics. Importantly, the seminar also attempts to understand the experiences of patients who, although suffering from diseases that carried significant moral and social stigma, sought out these new state-supported services.

At the Wellcome Unit Library, we hold a range of material relating to venereal disease and its surrounding topics. For a wide-ranging history of venerealogy, J.D. Oriel’s The Scars of Venus: a history of venereology (RC201.4 ORI 1994) is a helpful starting point. Claude Quétel’s The History of Syphilis (RC201.4 QUE 1992) specifically tracks the progress of one disease in history, and Quétel (translated by Braddock and Pike) here ‘chronicles five centuries of medical detective work and official management of a virulent disease that quickly became a cultural phenomenon’.











Allan M. Brandt’s No Magic Bullet: a social history of venereal disease in the United States since 1880 (RC201.47 BRA 1987) focuses the study of this area of history of medicine on America, moving ‘From Victorian anxieties about syphilis to the (…) hysteria over AIDS’. As with Oriel’s work, Brandt’s endpoint is the reawakening of panic over sexually transmitted disease in a post-HIV climate, despite advances in modern medicine seemingly giving an optimistic outlook by the middle of the 20th century,










For an exploration of the moral and ethical stances surrounding venereal disease, including attempts to ‘police’ the spread of the diseases, two monographs are of particular use: Dangerous Sexualities: medico-moral politics in England since 1830 by Frank Mort (HQ32 MOR 2000, and also available online), and Prostitution, Race & Politics: policing venereal disease in the British Empire (HQ185.A5 LEV 2003) by Philippa Levine. Mort examines attitudes towards sex and sexual choices with relation to venereal disease, while Levine gives an account of the blame laid on prostitutes for spreading infection among soldiers and sailors in colonial sites.











For source material concerning the enactment of post-war governmental efforts to fight venereal disease, we hold a pamphlet produced by the Office of Health Economics in 1963, entitled The Venereal Diseases (RC200 OFF 1963), which is intended to inform the public, and contains attendance statistics on the clinics Anne Hanley will be exploring the role of in her seminar. The header image of this blog post is its cover image: the fifth picture from Hogarth’s series ‘The Harlot’s Progress’. Social Service in the Clinic for Venereal Diseases by Dorothy Manchée (HV687 MAN 1943) also looks at these clinics, and is targeted at social workers.











Please come and ask library staff if you would like any help with locating resources, or conducting further research.



UPDATE: A late addition to the list – we always welcome further suggestions, in this case via Twitter! Roger Davidson and Lesley Hall’s  Sex, sin and suffering : venereal disease and European society since 1870  is a series of studies on the social history of venereal disease in modern Europe and its former colonies, and can be found at RA644.V4 SEX 2001.