“Venereal Diseases Cause More Casualties than War”: A Grim Magic Lantern Show…

We present another blog about slides digitized during the recent From Darkness into Light project.

Newly digitized and now available online, this curious collection of magic lantern slides (ADX/1262) starts with images of flowers and sculptures but quickly gets down to its principal theme which involves the horrors of syphilis.

It seems probable this magic lantern show was created during, or just after, the period of the First World War by or on behalf of the Medical Officer of Health for Cardiganshire – a post then occupied by Dr L. Meredith Davies. The slide show would have originally been accompanied by a lecture (now lost). When discovered the slides were wrapped in newspaper from 1919.

Although syphilis had been known for many centuries it was a particular problem in wartime. It was a major cause of lost man-hours during the First World War, and there were well-based fears that men who contracted syphilis would bring it home to their wives, and pass it to both the wife and through her to their unborn children.

By the time of the First World War syphilis was finally curable, but the treatments available were still significantly toxic. Until the early twentieth century most treatments were based on mercury which had terrible side-effects on the patient, but in the early years of the twentieth century a German chemist called Paul Erlich developed a drug which actually cured the disease. For this tremendous achievement he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1908. The drug, which in its commercial form was known as Salvarsan was not without complications however, being arsenic-based, and requiring long periods of sustained treatment to take effect. The slides in the magic lantern show demonstrate a wide range of the nasty symptoms and effects of syphilis including a condition known as ‘General Paralysis of the Insane’ which had only recently been identified as being caused by syphilis.

Unless further research reveals the answer, we can only speculate on the proposed audience for these images, drawn from a wide variety of sources. A cursory search of the digitized Aberystwyth Observer and Cambrian News for 1917 – 1919 does not suggest an audience, but given the nature of the slideshow this is perhaps unsurprising!

The slides themselves are a fascinating mixture: there are photographs of (unidentified, and not, I think, local) victims, tinted slides of ‘the wonders of nature’, two slides apparently indicative of the dangers of drinking in pubs…

… several slides apparently illustrative of healthy young people (a water polo match, a ladies’ bicycling race, a dance)…

… and many slides containing handwritten quotations and statistics relating to syphilis and venereal disease generally.

What this collection does appear to show is that someone in early twentieth century Cardiganshire thought it desirable and necessary to provide a detailed and informative explanation of the social and medical problem of syphilis and the necessity of professional treatment if it was diagnosed.

Perhaps the medical authorities were concerned that men returning from the war brought with them more than memories. Unfortunately our collection of the papers of Cardiganshire Medical Officer of Health has very few surviving documents from this period which might throw light on the matter.

More information about comparable collections and about any of the ‘stock’ images used would be very welcome, please!


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