‘They call it General Paralysis of the Insane,’ Margaret had said, avoiding her gaze. ‘It’s the end result of untreated syphilis. Mister Tart did not think it proper you should hear such things from a man. He didn’t want to embarrass you, given the nature of the disease. Which is why he asked me to pass on this information.’ [‘Orphan Rock‘, Transit Lounge, March 2022]

Even if Mr Tart had not lived at the end of the 19th Century, he still would have been hesitant to pass on this information, for then, as now, syphilis was not the subject of polite conversation, particularly in an era where wives and ‘proper’ women were considered too virtuous and genteel for such knowledge – virtuous women were separated from prostitutes not only morally, but physically as well, with prostitutes seen as being the carriers of disease. In addition, such diseases carried enormous moral stigma, as they were usually caught through illicit sexual activity, so a husband suffering from syphilis was not likely to tell his wife of his condition.

Unfortunately, this encouraged the spread of such diseases, especially when the symptoms may not be evident – with syphilis, for example, there are three stages. During the first stage, small, painless sores can appear anywhere on the body, including inside the rectum and vagina – places where a woman would not normally notice such sores – and these usually heal, even if untreated, within four weeks. With the second stage comes fever, weight loss, headache, muscle aches and tiredness, all symptoms that could also point to a number of other illnesses, or simply be the lot of a woman’s busy daily life. Then the symptoms disappear, sometimes for thirty years or more, but during this latent stage, if untreated, the person remains highly contagious, until they enter the third stage of permanent organ damage, including brain damage and/or chronic heart disease, and eventually death. This latent stage, of course, convinced many they were cured, and simply helped spread the disease.

Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde

Famous people believed to be suffering from syphilis include Christopher Columbus, said to have introduced the disease to Europe, Abraham Lincoln, William Shakespeare – many historians believe the tremors in his hands, which forced him to stop writing at a young age, were the result of the disease – and Oscar Wilde.

The number of cases of General Paralysis of the Insane continued to grow in the late 19th and early 20th Century, until the invention of penicillin meant syphilis could be treated in its early stages, thus preventing further deterioration. That, together with improvements in preventative measures, helped the number of cases decline. #HistoricalFiction #AussieLit #histfic #aushist #syphilis #madness #OrphanRock