An unexpectedly fashionable career

If asked today to list fashionable careers, it is highly unlikely that any of us would include ‘syphilis specialist’ in our list. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the prevalence of the disease in British society and the ongoing debates surrounding its nature and cure provided many medical men with the opportunity to carve out very fashionable, and indeed lucrative, careers.

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Medical instruments in A complete treatise on the virulent gonorrhoea, by Jacques Daran (London, 1766), University of Glasgow Library, Sp Coll NH.6.24; with permission of University of Glasgow Special Collections.

Among those who became famous for their work on the disease were two Scottish surgeons – John Hunter and Benjamin Bell. Hunter and Bell were particularly important and noted because they debated whether gonorrhea and syphilis were caused by the same pathogen.  Hunter argued for the same pathogen, whilst Bell took the position that they were separate diseases. Their work on the diseases was widely read and debated in the medical community, for instance Solomon Sawrey, a surgeon, published a book on An inquiry into some of the effects of the venereal poison on the human body; with… observations on some of the opinions of Mr. John Hunger and Mr. Benjamin Bell (1802).

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John Hunter (portrait on left-hand page),  A Treatise on the Venereal Disease (London, 1810), University of Glasgow Library, Sp Coll 84.b.12; with permission of University of Glasgow Special Collections.

The London-based surgeon John Marten also appears to have carved out a successful career as a pox practitioner (despite some accusations of quackery from contemporaries!). Marten published a very popular Treatise on all degrees and symptoms of the venereal disease. The book was clearly successful, running to seven editions. However, Marten did not just seek fame and fortune through his published endeavors. He also sought these through treating the upper circles of London society for the disease. The service that he offered was clearly tailored to meet the desires of an elite clientele; he offered to meet patients in clandestine locations away from their homes and his surgery and would send letters and remedies anonymously and to alternative collection addresses rather than directly to people’s homes. This was all to help fashionable Londoners maintain a respectable facade, free from association with a disease considered immoral and associated with horrific physical suffering and disfigurement. Moreover, all of these services were mentioned in Marten’s book, thus making it a sort of extended advertisement; a way to win him more wealthy patients!

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John Marten (portrait on the left-hand page), A Treatise of all the Degrees and Symptoms of the Venereal Disease (London, 1708), University of Glasgow Library, Sp Coll Hunterian Ab.6.11; with permission of University of Glasgow Special Collections.

Today we sometimes say that something is ‘to die for’, well during the eighteenth century, a successful career as a practitioner treating the pox was just that. Self-experimentation was common among medical men during this period, and some injected themselves with material extracted from the sores of venereal patients. This was undoubtedly risky, it could result in the need for months of mercury treatment, and had the potential to prove fatal. There is at least one known case of a student, who was preparing a thesis on venereal disease, dying from injecting himself with material from a pox sore.

Thus, whilst the great pox was not a fashionable disease to suffer from during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it provided many medical men with the opportunity to obtain fame and fortune. To be a pox practitioner, surgeon or doctor, was so desirable that it was literally seen as a career worth dying for.

Medical Fascinations, Human Lives: Hunter’s Syphilis Specimens

Should you visit The Hunterian Museum you can come face to face with victims of the great pox (syphilis). As you enter the main museum from the staircase, to the left hand side, on the topmost shelf of a cabinet containing a series of human specimens there is a set of skulls showing the ravages of what is now known as tertiary syphilis, the disease’s most aggressive phase.

LHS: Syphilis of the Skull, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery collections, catalogue number GLAHM 122592. RHS: Syphilis of the Skull, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery collections, catalogue number GLAHM 122590.

William Hunter, as is evident from the collection that he bequeathed to the University of Glasgow, was a voracious collector with incredibly diverse interests. But why did he collect these specimens?

Well, it seems these bones were principally objects of medical-scientific interest for Hunter. Perhaps he even used them in some of his teaching. In any case, neither these skulls nor the disease that they illustrate were Hunter’s primary interest. This is reflected in his catalogue of anatomical preparations. Some of the entries in this manuscript carefully document the origins (and sometimes even synopsise the life-stories) of human and animal specimens. However, no record is made of where the pox specimens were acquired from, and no clue is given to the victims’ identities.

We know very little of Hunter’s own perspective on the disease and its victims. In 1775 he gave a paper to the Royal Society in London, discussing the geographical origins of the disease. During this paper he suggested the pox was associated with ‘immorality’ and ‘disgrace’. However, it is unclear whether Hunter shared this opinion or was merely acknowledging contemporary attitudes.

But these skulls are not just ‘specimens’, they are human remains. They lived lives as vivid as our own. The holes in some of the skulls can look like the accident of a careless archaeologist. It is easy to forget when browsing in the museum, that these people watched, and likely suffered unimaginable pain, as the pox ate away their bones. These painful and emotional experiences cannot be captured by museum labels or catalogue descriptions.

One of the aims of this project, particularly through the Insight Talks I have delivered in The Hunterian, has been to ask museum visitors to consider how they view the objects and specimens on display. To acknowledge the scientific and medical importance of items like these skulls, but also to encourage viewers to consider these as emotional objects, which suggest a past that we cannot fully access. Ultimately, without documentation we cannot hope to discover the stories of these individuals, but through combining our knowledge of medical history, the attitudes towards and treatment of the pox, alongside our own emotional experiences of illness, we can give some flesh to these bones and see them not only as specimens, but as people.

V0010536 A preserved skull of a woman who had been suffering from syp

A preserved skull of a woman who had been suffering from syphilis and encountered her ‘long wished for death’ on 28 August 1796. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.