Sunday, October 26, 2014

He died of syphilis

During WWI the first cause of absence from duty was Spanish influenza and the second most prevalent reason for absence from duty was due to syphilis. There was no penicillin then and one of the most commonly used "cures" was injections of mercury. As you can imagine, that didn't go well. It wouldn't be until after 1943, just in time for the Second World War, that science would ride to the rescue with penicillin. But before that it was pretty much take your pick: die from the symptoms of syphilis or from the symptoms of mercurial poisoning. Even when penicillin appeared, it was only effective in the primary or secondary phase of the disease. Once the disease reached the tertiary stage and went to the nervous system or the brain, you were a gonner.

Our ancestor went off to WWI as did so many of all of our ancestors. I've written here previously about Mom's Uncle Jimmy who was gassed during that war and it's definitely not him I'm writing about now. No, this is a very distant cousin of Mom's who served overseas and possibly brought home an unwanted "present" for his wife, although I don't know for sure about her. He died of complication of this deadly STD at the Veteran's Hospital in the state where he lived, and he died about 1940-ish, just a couple of years before the widespread use of penicillin, which is too bad. The records indicate that he'd had it for at least 20 years, and the last three years of his life were the worst of it as it spread to his brain in the third stage, thus necessitating institutionalization.

Of course you know how we are as genealogists. We learn of something such as this in our family, even if it is out on a sort of remote branch of the family tree, and have to go search about it! Our neighbor down the street is a doctor who worked at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) before he retired, and while walking dogs I asked him what he did there and he said that his area was sexually transmitted diseases or STDs. In an effort to make small talk, we chatted about the prevalence of syphilis now. (Stop laughing, we did!) He said that these things go around in certain populations in waves and that a couple of years ago syphilis was the most common STD right here, locally. Really?! I guess I thought these things were all but eradicated due to condom use and easy cures. Not so, he said. (For more about brothels and the British Expeditionary Force during WWI, click here. Did you know that officers were given condoms but enlisted men were not?)

The dangers of STDs were known during WWI and recruits were trained not to succumb to temptations and not to visit brothels while being shown some pretty scary pictures of those who did not resist. Sometimes that scare tactic worked and more often it didn't.

As I often remind myself, we weren't there and we don't know what happened, so I don't judge.

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