During World War I, the US Public Health Service published literature on sexually transmitted diseases in an effort to keep soldiers healthy. At the time, the number one cause for disability among our soldiers was the Spanish Flu. The number two cause was venereal disease. Syphilis was the primary infection and there was no cure. It could be treated, but often times the mercury treatments could be as bad or worse than the disease itself. Later, Arsenic was used as a treatment, but it was not an easy process and was very expensive. It was not until the 1940's that penicillin became widely available for treating the disease (penicillin was only discovered in 1928).

What probably started out well intentioned, ended up being one of the most shameful moral failures in our nation's history. The Chicago Syphilis Project, for example, was an effort to eradicate the disease from the Chicago area. It focused on brothels and prostitutes and often involved forced examination of the women and long term incarceration and treatment. It didn't include the same focus on the men, however and as you might have guessed, it wasn't very successful.

There was much we didn't know about the disease. The symptoms could take a long time after infection or it could manifest pretty quickly. An advanced stage could take from 5 to 40 years to develop. Symptoms started with a small open sore and would eventually progress to a "pox", foul ulcers that covered the body. Dementia, paralysis, seizures and severe pain often followed.

In 1932, the United States Public Health Service recruited volunteers in and around Tuskegee, Alabama for a six month study of syphilis. I say that it was probably well intentioned, because it was conducted in cooperation with the all black Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University. It recruited 600 volunteers from the area. 399 of them had latent syphilis and 201 of them did not. What started out as a six month study continued for the next 40 years.

As an enticement to sign up, men were promised free healthcare.

For more information, you can follow any of the links provided below.

Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Syphilis, 100 years later

Venereal Disease Clinic Hot Springs, AR

Journal of Military and Veterans Health