The Cure For Syphilis Was Developed As Part Of The US Effort To Win World War II

Syphilis Organism Electron Microscope 1944APThe organism treponema palladium, which causes syphilis, is seen through an electron microscope, May 23, 1944.

World War II is the deadliest conflict in history.

But the human race still emerged from the war with a few potential advances in hand, among them a cure for syphilis.

The bacteria responsible for the disease was discovered in 1905, and its eventual cure, penicillin, in the late ’20s.

But it wasn’t until 1943, in the midst of World War II, that doctors at a US Marine Hospital on Staten Island in New York applied the antibiotic to effectively cure four patients suffering from the early stages of the disease.

That October, TIME ran an article about the experiments with the headline “New Magic Bullet,” and the next year the doctors published a study on the effectiveness of penicillin injections administered every few hours for eight days.

The development was especially important given the measurable impact that syphilis and other diseases had on the manpower needed to fuel the war effort.

Nearly five per cent of draftees in 1942 had syphilis, according to a medical paper published in the journal Military Medicine and entitled “History of US Military Contributions to the Study of Sexually Transmitted Diseases.”

When left untreated, the disease causes genital sores before attacking other parts of the body, including the nervous system, to cause a slew of debilitating symptoms and even eventual death. The military’s syphilis problem during a major US combat mobilization prompted the War Department “to embark on a massive educational and prophylactic campaign.”

Contemporary posters warned that “You can’t beat the Axis if you get VD,” and that venereal disease makes “a sorry ending to a furlough.”

Manpower suffered during World War I from exactly this problem. American soldiers weren’t supplied with condoms (something which would change in the next world war), and sexually transmitted diseases as a whole “were the second most common reason for disability and absence from duty, being responsible for nearly 7 million lost person-days and the discharge of more than 10,000 men,” according to an article in the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health.

Shortly before that war, syphilis — which first got its name in an Italian poem from the year 1530 — was treated with a medical form of an arsenic compound. Its creator, a German chemist named Paul Ehrlich, won the Nobel Prize in 1908 for his discovery and the drug’s effectiveness in the Great War was noted by a medical officer in the United Kingdom’s Royal Army Medical Corps.

Still, arsenic was a toxic substance that produced adverse side effects — and it was sometimes used in combination with mercury, which is also poisonous. Penicillin was much easier for the human body to take and the discovery of its effectiveness against syphilis had positive effects that outlasted the second World War.

Woman Poster World War II syphilis gonorrheacommons.wikimedia.orgA poster from 1940 urging caution on the gentleman soldier.

The disease was “the fourth leading cause of death in the United States before World War II, behind only tuberculosis, pneumonia, and cancer,” according to the article in the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health. 

In 1939, 64,000 Americans died from the disease, almost as many as died from diabetes in a recent year. Today, the rate of annual infection is round 13,000 cases for which a cure is available.

The disease has also faded in the American military. In the early years of the Vietnam War, for instance, syphilis represented only one per cent of servicemen’s cases of sexual infections (though the total rate of these, mostly due to gonorrhea, was actually greater than during World War II).

In 1999, prevalence in the US military was down to 3 cases per 100,000 individuals, close to the civilian rate of 2.5.

The urgency of the US war effort 70 years ago, alongside decades of advances in publish health, reduced the sting of a once-devastating disease in the military and in American society more generally.

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