One in five Londoners had syphilis in the 18th century

Hyperaxion Jul 6, 2020

Historians analyzed several personal and medical records from the 18th century and noted that most Londoners contracted the disease by the age of 35.

Historians at the University of Cambridge, UK, and the Trent University, Canada, found that over 250 years ago, more than a fifth of Londoners had contracted syphilis by the age of 35. The findings were published on July 1 in the scientific journal Economic History Review.

One in five Londoners had syphilis in the 18th century
18th century London. (Credit: Louis Peter Boitard).

The study also reveals that London residents were more likely to receive treatment for the disease than people who lived in rural towns or rural areas.

Historians analyzed personal and medical records from the 18th century and found, for example, that James Boswell, a well-known biographer of the writer Samuel Johnson, recorded up to 19 episodes of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in a diary between 1760 and 1786. Boswell had contact with many London prostitutes and wrote about the pain caused by sexually transmitted infections. Today, his records help to understand the population structure of the English capital, sexual habits and the local culture of the time.

When experiencing early signs of discomfort, such as a rash or painful urination, most people in England thought they had gonorrhea instead of syphilis, and used to self-medicate with homemade pills and potions. But many got worse, leading to unbearable pain and fever.

Szreter and Kevin Siena, from Trent University, used large numbers of hospital records, including bed occupancy rates and duration of hospital stays. St Thomas and Guy’s hospitals, for example, housed 20% to 30% of patients who had syphilis.

After some calculations, the researchers saw that about 8% of Chester’s population was infected with syphilis at age 35, while the number in London was close to 20%, giving an average of 1 in 5 people with the disease. An important factor for the disease to have been so prevalent in London was the increasing movement of people and the financial difficulties experienced by young people aged 15 to 34 at that time.

Historians point out that STIs were more common among young, poor, and mostly single women, who resorted to prostitution to support themselves financially or even in situations that made them vulnerable to sexual predation and assault. Infections were also common among two groups of men: poor migrants and the very rich, like James Boswell, who were able to pay for expensive private treatment.

“Syphilis and other STIs can have a very significant effect on morbidity and mortality and also on fertility. So infection rates represent a serious gap in our historical knowledge, with significant implications for health, for demography and therefore for economic history. We hope that our work will help to change this,” said Szreter, in a note.

Related topics:

18th century London Syphilis


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