Dr. Theodor Rosebury discusses his book "Microbes and Morals" and the cultural history of communicable diseases and infections
BROADCAST: 1970 | DURATION: 00:56:54
Dr. Theodor Rosebury discusses the history and myths of communicable and sexually transmitted infections, how they are represented in media, and the impact of shame.
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Theodor Rosebury "There was a young man from Back Bay, who thought syphilis just went away. He believed that a chancre was only a canker that healed in a week and a day, but now he has acne vulgaris, or whatever they call it in Paris, on his skin it has spread from his feet to his head and his friends want to know where his hair is. There's more to his terrible plight. His pupils won't close in the light. His heart is cavorting, his wife is aborting and he squints through his gun barrel's sight. Arthlagia cuts into his slumber. His aorta's in need of a plumber. But now he has tabes and saber-shinned babies while of gummas he has quite a number. He's been treated in every known way, but his spirochetes grow day by day. He's developed paresis, has long talks with Jesus, and thinks he's the Queen of the May."
Studs Terkel A doggerel, seemingly comic yet, deadly serious. A doggerel of another century, I imagine, read by my guest, Dr. Theodor Rosebury, distinguished bacteriologist, who has done some remarkable work. He was Professor Emeritus, Washington University of St. Louis, bacteriology. His first book dealt with the exposures of biological warfare, called "Peace or Pestilence", and then his second book, one we talked about when Dr. Rosebury was a guest on this program about a year ago, "Life on Man", the natural bacteria and the host man, that was highly acclaimed, in fact a National Book Award candidate. Now his new book, "Microbes and Morals", the hidden--the strange story, really, of venereal disease. Now this doggerel you just read, Dr. Rosebury, in this remarkably witty, yet knowledgeable and very serious book. This doggerel was of another time, it's funny and, yet, it has all the, it all the symptoms of syphilis, doesn't it?
Theodor Rosebury Well, it's something that was used in teaching medical students. It was probably written by medical students, I would imagine, although it's anonymous. I would date it between 1905 and 1910, I'd do that, because of some of the things in the last verse.
Theodor Rosebury Yes, there still is a lot of resistance against talking about it. Nice People, with capitals, don't talk about venereal disease. It's still, even at a time when sex has become almost completely open as a topic of dinner table conversation and on television at least in the late hours, VD is still resisted. Not completely, not nearly as much as it used to be, but there still is, there still are vestiges of the old resistance.
Studs Terkel Isn't that interesting. Perhaps you could talk about this, this is in your book, it's a very remarkable one, the whole history of it, too, and the myths you explode. But D.H. Lawrence's dirty little secret, sex, is no longer a secret, and, yet, it would seem. Talk about syphilis or gonorrhea. Still, even in that moment as I say it, at this moment we're saying, "Gee, should one talk about it?" I wonder why, why is this taboo still hanging on?
Theodor Rosebury Well, I'm not sure that anyone can answer the question why, but it seems to me that these are still remnants of the old Puritanism which we have by no means lost. I think we're on the way to getting rid of these things, but we haven't gotten rid of all of them. They're still with us to a considerable extent. And they linger on in this area. Part of the blame can possibly be laid at the door of the medical profession, although I don't like to do that. I think that doctors echo what society tells them. But doctors don't like this subject; they, it's no longer a formal part of medical education, although I trust that it's coming back now that VD is rising again. Gonorrhea is the most widely-reported infectious disease in the United States today, and still going up, going up alarmingly.
Studs Terkel Isn't this amazing? The impression that we've had for a long time until recently, recent disclosure, not just the soldiers in Vietnam but here in the United States. The alarming increase. And your book discusses this, but also discusses the history of it. I thought it was pretty well captured, pretty well hemmed in and beaten?
Theodor Rosebury In the 1950s, in the mid-1950s, both gonorrhea and syphilis hit a low point of incidence as a result of effective treatment with penicillin, and sometime around that time or before that, they were sort of written off by the medical profession and medical researchers. It was assumed that they were on their way out along with other infectious diseases. But around that time they began to come back, and they've come back alarmingly. I just got, just yesterday, the most recent figures for VD, for gonorrhea and syphilis, and the official notification of gonorrhea has, for 1971, was 630-odd thousand cases. That is subject to a correction upward by a factor of at least five, and the official figure is given as about three point eight for correction. I say five, it may be even 10. You can think in terms of something like four or five million new cases of gonorrhea reported in 1971.
Theodor Rosebury Syphilis is also going up. The rate for syphilis is a good deal lower. Gonorrhea is first on the list of reportable infectious diseases. Syphilis--well, in 1970 it was third. I haven't seen the figures for 1971, it's either third or fourth.
Studs Terkel In your, I was thinking in your book that is very witty and there are many literary allusions to it in history, we'll come to that gigantic myth, that overwhelming myth, of venereal disease being imported by the Europeans from the New World from the Indians. And you destroy that, we'll come to that. I'm just curious to know about--I'm sure some questions are raised about sexual freedom being connected with this, this is a question that is raised very often, isn't it, and you blast that.
Theodor Rosebury Oh, yes, this is a bland assumption that is made frequently in very responsible quarters, that the increase in VD is due in the first place to increased sexual freedom and is chargeable very largely to young people. I at least question both of those statements. Sure, sexual freedom must have something to do with it. One can't say it has nothing to do with it, but there's always been sex. I think what is new about sex is not that it exists or occurs but that it's much more visible than it used to be. But there's a considerable question as to just how much sexual activity has really increased. Even granting that it has increased, and I'm really not sure that this is true. But many people think it is, even the Kinsey group, the old Kinsey group argues that there is more sexual activity today than there used to be. Even granting this, the amount of the increase is nothing, does not compare, with the amount of increase of VD. There are other reasons for this.
Theodor Rosebury Yes, well, this, of course, is a crucial question and it's not an easy question to answer. I don't know that I would attempt an answer to it. I think later on, are we going to get into the question of China? This may be a little too soon to do it.
Studs Terkel Well, perhaps we should. China, as well as Cuba and the Soviet Union and some of the Western European countries. But there's something you earlier in your book--just think of this, I was thinking about it reading your book and it just threw me for a loop, that the incidences of syphilis and gonorrhea in Europe came into being more and more when people were more nomadic. Cities came into being, movement and I was just wondering if the more nomadic nature of the world today, the transient nature, too, doesn't play a role on this.
Theodor Rosebury Well, we know that whenever there's a big World's Fair or another big collection of people in any city in the world, there is always a tremendous increase in VD. VD follows armies, always follows armies. It follows population movements. With population movements you get increased contact of all kinds between people, including sexual contact. And this, although it's dangerous to oversimplify and attribute VD to any one thing, this is certainly an important factor in the rise of VD.
Theodor Rosebury Well, a fact which I'm at some pains to point out in my book, which most people don't understand because the history of the subject is not too well-known even among doctors, is that we didn't really begin to understand what contagion is until the time of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, which was only about a century ago. Just a hundred years ago, which after all in the course of human history is a very short time, syphilis has certainly been known for many centuries. There are, as I, again as I say, strong suggestions that both syphilis and gonorrhea can be traced back to the Bible, to Biblical times, and probably even earlier than that, that they go back to the beginnings of what we call civilization. In fact, civilization and syphilization have often been thought of as more or less synonymous. Not funny, but one gets whatever kind of laugh one can out of this gruesome subject.
Studs Terkel It's interesting that you quote the Bible throughout and you find various passages that deal for a time--leprosy was almost used as a euphemism for it or was, there was confusion, wasn't there?
Theodor Rosebury Well, again, our knowledge of disease, our specific knowledge of the nature of disease, infectious disease and other disease, is a relatively recent thing. It goes back, again, it was the early bacteriologists who enabled us--well, not they alone, but they helped us to distinguish between different diseases. In Biblical times, the word "leprosy" was applied very loosely to diseases that were horrible-looking or loathsome. It undoubtedly included real leprosy, what we would call leprosy today, but it also included a lot of other things. And the evidence indicates, a good deal of evidence indicates, that among these other things were syphilis.
Theodor Rosebury That's the point. That's the point. Because we have records going back to the 13th century and earlier, long before the time of Columbus, which point to what is called, what was in those days called "venereal leprosy," that is, leprosy contracted by sexual intercourse, and to congenital leprosy, that is, leprosy in the baby born of a leprous mother. We know today that these things are never true of leprosy, but they are true of syphilis.
Studs Terkel And you point to a certain time long before 1492. Now we come to one of the key aspects of your book, the nature of myth and legend. Now for a long time, this is it that these--Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors brought back VD from the American Indians.
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Theodor Rosebury I do attempt to answer that question. It's not, again, not a question one can answer in a few words, except that it was a coincidental kind of thing. This, of course, was the time of the High Renaissance. It was the time of rapid development, intellectual development including exploration, including all kinds of population movements in the Western world. It was also a time of growing imperialism and colonialism, a time of conquest by the Western nations of the new countries that were being discovered in all parts of the world. And I think there's some reason to believe that without any particular evidence, or on the basis of quite circumstantial evidence, it was a convenient thing to do to fasten this idea on a group of people who had no opportunity to answer back, namely the American Indian. Just as they, well, you know, the Europeans "discovered" America, but the Indians are now saying, well, they knew about the existence of America long before the Europeans ever found out about it.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. And the evidence, as I develop it here, it has been developed by others, I use mainly secondary sources, is that syphilis did exist in Europe long before the time of Columbus, and as far as we know it did not exist in the New World in his time.
Theodor Rosebury Yes, and part of the history of syphilis shows how they--it was blamed especially on the French, you know, it was the French disease, but the French called it the Spanish disease, and the Spanish might have called it the Polish disease. Everybody blamed it on somebody else. This was one of the curious aspects of it and one of the things that medical students like to laugh about.
Theodor Rosebury It was very shortly after Columbus returned from his second voyage, which was, I think, late in 1494. And the idea grew that syphilis started in the New World. As a result of the presence in the armies of Charles the VIII who besieged Naples in 1495. These were Spanish mercenaries in the French armies, and they were members of Columbus's crew who were supposed, were alleged to have brought syphilis back from Hispaniola, where they contracted it by lying with Indian women.
Studs Terkel That's interesting. You make an interesting medical point, though, earlier in the case of Augustine, we'll come to him and the bubonic plague earlier, you're saying that syphilis, if I follow you correctly, it takes quite a while before its symptoms are manifest, or it can and so, it would not have been possible or not probable that during the siege of Naples, one year after Napoleon's second return, when you wrote that it had, so, therefore, it must have happened before.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Even in the early 16th century, this idea was recognized. Syphilis is in the first place a slow disease. It develops over a period of weeks, months, or years. And in the second place it's a disease that is transmitted by what one might call one-to-one contact, one person at a time, if you like. Unlike many other diseases like cholera or typhoid fever or influenza or one could mention any number of examples; yellow fever; which are transmitted or can be transmitted to hundreds or thousands almost simultaneously and, therefore, can spread very rapidly and which also tend to develop much faster than syphilis so that whereas the outbreak of syphilis that did occur we have every reason to believe in the late 15th century in Europe could hardly have been attributed to this kind of sudden explosive event, such other diseases as influenza or yellow fever and so on might have developed that way.
Studs Terkel And you also indicate cases medically and historically and artistically, too, this book deals with artists and with painters and with literature as well, that it may have been before that, too, and went back to the Bible, you see. Made itself manifest one way or another.
Theodor Rosebury Well, he was a Renaissance man. He was a poet/physician. He was apparently a very highly-respected poet who first wrote about syphilis in a poem which was based in its form on Virgil, and who invented the name "syphilis" in this poem. Syphilis was a shepherd in Hispaniola who was supposed, according to the poem, which was deliberately fanciful, he was supposed to have been stricken with this disease for the first time for disrespect shown to the gods. This in Fracastoro's form in terms, in other words, the origin of the disease was a result of blasphemy, not as a result of sex, although Fracastoro did recognize to some extent in a vague confused kind of way the relationship of sex to syphilis.
Theodor Rosebury Well, until we began to understand disease, which as I said before dates only from the last century or so, disease has always been looked upon as supernatural, as being due to first blasphemy in the early days to disrespect to the gods, to disrespect to the moral rules of the community even going back before the time of the Hebrews. And after St. Paul and St. Augustine, when sex became much more important than it had been previously, when sexual transgression developed, and when Puritanism grew out of it, it was a natural thing to single out sex as one of the kinds of sin which was especially associated with disease. And since there was evidence that syphilis and gonorrhea as they were beginning to be understood, and they were confused in those days. That they were associated in some curious way which was not understood with sexual activity, then they were attributed directly to this particular kind of sin.
Studs Terkel Sinful?
Studs Terkel Now, I'm thinking because the reason I said it, because somewhere in the--when Ibsen's "Ghosts" came out, you point out, in literature, even in literature it was buried, although you're seeing Shakespeare throughout. Shakespeare was a--must have had a remarkable medical knowledge too, didn't he.
Theodor Rosebury Shakespeare seems to have known pretty much everything that was known in his time. Yes. And Shakespeare also existed during the brief interval when a man was, perhaps, freer than he had ever been before or has ever been since. And he shows this in his treatment of venereal disease among other things, as well as in his treatment of sex, all of which we have not yet really unraveled. A lot of the bawdy allusions in Shakespeare have been collected for us by Partridge and a number of other authors, but there are still others I'm sure in his plays which remain to be deciphered by scholars who ought to dig into that subject.
Theodor Rosebury Well, roughly between the time of Shakespeare in the early 17th century and the time of Ibsen in the mid-19th century, there was the Puritan-Victorian hiatus. This is a vast oversimplification, of course, but this curiously enough was also the time of the flourishing of pornography, you know, which was a kind of a kind of reaction to this sort of thing. But Ibsen was the first one to bring back the question of syphilis as he brought back many other questions of hypocrisy and morality and saw in "A Doll's House" and things of that sort. And he brought this back in his book "Ghosts", which is, of course, a shattering play, the theme of which deals with congenital syphilis. Not in a very good medical way, as I point out, although it's a great play dramatically.
Studs Terkel But that's a point you just made. I didn't realize it, during that long, long period from Puritanism after Elizabethan days, and after, yeah, after would be Puritanism, to the Victorian, through the Victorian, pornography flourished, that's, so we still have that aspect of it today, the hangover.
Theodor Rosebury No, I think we're coming back to a new cycle now. I think that something new is happening today and that pornography, well, I don't know that we need to get into that, but that is not part of the same phase.
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Theodor Rosebury Well, pornography used to be a high-class reaction to Victorianism. It was practiced by the rich almost exclusively. These people, these wealthy amateurs who collected pornography, were members of the upper classes. Whether that's still true today or not, I don't know. But this was true in Victorian England, for example.
Theodor Rosebury Right.
Studs Terkel Now we come back, Dr. Rosebury, to the matter of literature, return also to Fracastoro and Astruc and the others, myth and legend, the breaking of it, the French playwright in the 19th century--
Theodor Rosebury Yes. This play, Brieux was a French playwright who has been, I think unfortunately, virtually forgotten at least in this country. I think it would be a good idea to revive him. He was a Victorian, too, and some of his stuff is dated, but his play "Damaged Goods", which deals directly with syphilis, and deals with it now in contrast with Ibsen in a very authentic way medically, was written, was first played in Paris around the turn of the century, was immediately banned. And he took it to Belgium where it opened and then some years later it came back to Paris and in 1913 it first came to New York through the efforts of Richard Bennett, the famous--
Studs Terkel Actor.
Theodor Rosebury Old actor/manager, father of Joan Bennett and Constance Bennett. And even so it had to be put on in an odd sort of way. The regular theatres would have no part of it. He had tremendous difficulty getting a cast together as soon as he would begin to get people to play the parts, he would lose them because of the publicity about it. But when he finally put the play on, it was said to have been a great success and it's been revived a number of times. Sinclair Lewis wrote a book based on the Brieux play. Not Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, I
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel And it's a marvelous quote. How--how--by the very nature of the Renaissance and by the very nature of explorations and new colonialism, too, beneath quoting Symonds, and this is something happening before Columbus in America, "Beneath the surface of brilliant social culture lurked gross appetites and savage passions unrestrained by medieval piety untutored by modern experience. The educated classes lost their grip upon morality. Pontiffs were, early pontiffs brought the church into flagrant discord, the principle of Christianity." Then it goes on, the fact that there was also the movement, the idea of movement, back and forth, sailors and ships and ports.
Theodor Rosebury Yes, well, this combination of things, I think, war, the conquests of the period, the explorations of the period and even the effects of the earlier Black Plague which had started in Europe in 1370 and had been repeating every few years all through this period tended to destroy or tended at least to undermine puritanical concepts, and all of these things together, I think, provoked a tremendous increase in sexual activity which could easily have released the quote smoldering unquote venereal disease that may have existed in centuries before.
Theodor Rosebury The growth of cities, of capitalism itself, the development of trade, the development of commerce, all these things involved movements of large numbers of people and disruption of the old settled ways that had existed for centuries during the Middle Ages.
Studs Terkel You speak of a bacteria. Talking to Dr. Theodor Rosebury, a very distinguished bacteriologist indeed, but a very witty writer, too. We should be reading some passages from your book, too, some very funny ones. Treponema--
Theodor Rosebury Treponematoses.
Studs Terkel Treponematoses.
Theodor Rosebury Yes, I'm sorry, it's a tongue-twisting word and it's too bad that one has to use it, because it doesn't have any, if it had a simple English equivalent I would have been happy to use it, but it doesn't. There is no simple English equivalent. Treponematoses are a group of diseases caused by spirochetes which are essentially indistinguishable from the spirochete of syphilis, but they include a number of other diseases which are non-venereal, which are not transmitted by sexual intercourse, which are transmitted by skin contact and which are characteristically diseases of children in the tropics with variations.
Theodor Rosebury Yaws, yes, and that disease called bejel, or sometimes called endemic syphilis, which is so similar to syphilis that it's given the same name, but it is a non-venereal disease which occurs essentially among more or less primitive peoples, at least among peoples not living in cities, in what we called, under what we call civilized circumstances.
Theodor Rosebury Yaws was brought we believe was brought to this hemisphere by Blacks as slaves, yes, and bejel, too, non-venereal syphilis, too. On the other hand, there's still a fourth of these diseases called "pinta," which is characteristic of Mexico and Cuba and Venezuela and that area, the Central America, North and South American area, which seems to be the most ancient of these diseases and which probably came over into that area when the Bering Strait was closed, when there was a land bridge there at least so Hackett thinks.
Studs Terkel It's funny how things fall into place, I was thinking on Page 93 of Dr. Rosebury's book, the last paragraph of this chapter. The other theory, that is, the non-Colombian theory. "The idea of an origin in the late 15th century including the Columbus story fell," about syphilis' origin, "fell when it appeared that venereal syphilis was present in Europe before that time. It now appears that the other condition required by the idea of a sudden origin in Europe had also been found wanting. That is, the presence of venereal syphilis in America when Columbus' sailors landed. It looks rather as though syphilis was distributed by the white man himself, and as though were Indians and other dark-skinned people were involved, they acted only as agents of the white man's exploitation and cruelty." That almost falls into place here, just you talking about yaws. You know, yaws brought here non-venereal, you see.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. It seemed to me as I say somewhere else in the book, that with the current increase in VD, the tremendous upsurge of VD, we need to take a new look at the whole subject, and in connection with that new look, it seemed to me that it was wise to look back at these old historical ideas which, as I say, I myself had taught when I used to be a professor of bacteriology many years ago and used to lecture on this subject to medical students. I used to love to get a laugh out of them by talking about how syphilis was brought to this country by Columbus. Somehow or other they found that funny. And maybe I had a little guilt, and I had to look back at that story specifically because I used to mouth it myself.
Studs Terkel We're talking to Dr. Theodor Rosebury and his new book is called "Microbes and Morals: The Strange Story of Venereal Disease", Viking Press the publishers, and we'll return in a moment. The theme, and more about the literature of it and the various musicians, too, and also the matter in different societies in the world today and how it is approached. In just a moment. We're resuming the conversation with Dr. Theodor Rosebury and the book, "Microbes and Morals". Throughout your literary references and you're speaking Francois Villon. Here's Francois Villon long before Columbus.
Theodor Rosebury Yes, the poet of the mid-15th century, the great Vagabond Poet of Paris, who was probably himself syphilitic and who also talked about what sounds like syphilis, although it's been disputed.
Theodor Rosebury Sublimate would be a salt of mercury. We speak of corrosive sublimate today as mercuric chloride, but any salt of mercury will sublimate, that is, if you heat it in the dry form, the salt will come off as a vapor and will settle somewhere else, and this was one of the ways of treating syphilis with mercury in the early days.
Studs Terkel What else, what else couldn't Francois Villon be writing about? "In sublimate whereof men stand in dread in sweat from navels of live adders." Whew! And he goes on for leeches and he goes on to describe--
Studs Terkel Now we come to one of the chapters often quoted in various magazines. And by the way, the reviews of Dr. Rosebury's book have been very, very enthusiastic indeed. So Hogarth and Blake in their works write of it, too.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. Hogarth's "Marriage A-la-Mode" series has, deals with VD in an oblique sort of way, which one wouldn't know just from looking at the pictures, but the associated text and annotations indicate that rather clearly.
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Theodor Rosebury Oh no, it wasn't all that clear-cut. There was talk about VD in a sneering kind of way. The curse "a pox on you," you know, it was "a pox on it" was a very common curse long after Shakespeare's time, because syphilis was known then and it was used in the vernacular. But it was nevertheless repressed, not absolutely but relatively.
Theodor Rosebury Well, I think that's a particularly interesting thing, because he not only made a picture which he actually called "The Syphilitic", but he seems to have had syphilis himself, as one can determine partly from a drawing that he made of himself.
Theodor Rosebury For the odd reason of how--it's in the book, yes. For the odd reason of having presumably sent it to a physician for diagnosis. In those days, as I say, it was probably just as good for a physician to have a drawing made by so competent a draftsman as to see the person in the flesh directly. But, and also from some of his letters, which indicate that he while he was married for only a short time and he had a great fear of syphilis, and so on.
Studs Terkel What evidence is there, this is the point of, I'm sure asked you many times, Dr. Rosebury, in speaking of possible syphilitic victims, patients, if Beethoven, Schubert, Heine, Goethe, Keats, there is evidence, then, there's medical evidence.
Theodor Rosebury Well, the evidence in relation to Beethoven would tend to indicate that he probably did not have it. It is generally assumed that he did in many of the biographies, but the only symptom that might have been syphilitic that he had was his deafness, and even the deafness was not typical of syphilitic deafness. And modern physicians writing on this subject, in fact just last year during the 200th anniversary, suggested Beethoven did not have syphilis. But Keats, Schubert, and Heine, are three contemporary poets/musicians who do seem to have had syphilis, and I make the point in there that if three such marvelous men who so tremendously enriched the cultural heritage of the world could have had this disease, how can we think of it as something immoral?
Studs Terkel Something immoral and sinful, that's the point, you quote Henry Sigerist here, the great medical--is that Henry Sigerist, the medical historian, on this very point. I just happened to--at this page as you were talking. And Sigerist talking about myth, and legend, and horror: "We encountered a [unintelligible] to the west. This played an extremely important part to our very day. The sick man was a sinner. He had stolen, killed, committed perjury or adultery, had spat into a river, drunk from an impure vessel, done whatever society, of which he was a member, considered sinful and as a result his god, a guardian spirit, had abandoned him, whereupon he fell an easy prey to the demons, and so his suffering made his sin apparent." And he goes on to speak of the concept of, that disease is a punishment for sin. Well, not just Old Testament, you're indicating, too, that among the Greeks, too, this might have been a factor.
Theodor Rosebury Way back. Way back even before that. It's such a nice easy theory, you know, because everybody does something like that. And if he gets sick, there's always something that he must have done, he inevitably must have done that you can blame it on.
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel For place or persuasion. I think--yet, we can--we still come to the question of the taboo. I remember we were talking earlier, before we went on the air, I saw that movie, a Warner Brothers film about 25 years ago, it was so good.
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel Neosalverson.
Studs Terkel Salvarsan.
Studs Terkel I'll never forget that one scene, as it stands, as we're talking now, Ehrlich, who is played by Edward G. Robinson, is saying he's working on--he's at a fashionable dinner. Now, when was the time of this, the late 19th century?
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel "I'm working on a cure for syphilis." And they said, "What!" And you get shots of all the faces, "What did he say?" and they're whispering. "What did he say?" And they're horrified and shocked, and the host Maria Ouspenskaya says, "He said syphilis." I'll never forget that shot. So, but again, to indicate the repressive air that was there.
Theodor Rosebury He played a very important role in opening this whole subject up for public discussion in the newspapers and over the radio and in a concerted effort by the Public Health Service during that period to control syphilis. In those days, the emphasis was all on syphilis. Gonorrhea we tended to be neglected. But on the other hand, the control of VD is likely to be one thing, and if one of these diseases is controlled, some degree of control will be exercised over the other. Yes, Parran was a very important figure in the history of public health efforts to control venereal disease. Unfortunately, as somebody said the efforts were demobilized with the Army after World War II, and emphasis was placed elsewhere.
Studs Terkel And, so, with the war. Then, we always think of war--some scientists or technicians, I should say, think of war as a means by way--by means of which new inventions come into play that help liberate man. The irony. You're pointing something else out here.
Theodor Rosebury Well, let me dwell on that point for a moment, if I may. You and I both remember World War II and I think we remember something which youngsters today forget. There was nothing good about the war. There's nothing good about any war if it comes to it, but we saw the people of this country mobilized in a joint effort for something that they believed in during that period, Studs. I remember this very well. I will never forget it, it was one of the great lessons of my life, that there are ways, and war is usually the easiest one, of bringing people together to work together in a common cause and if they believe in a cause, they can accomplish what would seem otherwise to be miraculous. You agree with me, don't you, that this, there was this spirit abroad during World War II which, I think, young people today can hardly understand at all, they can hardly imagine that anything of this sort could ever happen because it's so foreign to what's going on today. But may we come to the question of China, because I think we were--
Theodor Rosebury This is really what we're dealing with because I make the point in my book, which was written and actually set in before the ping-pong games, and I used the information that I had available, and, actually, there's enough in my book for anyone who reads it to get a complete basis on this subject and also on the technical side of VD, we haven't said anything about that, but it's all in the book, and in the book I make the point based on information I had, that China, perhaps alone among the countries of the world, seemed to have controlled VD, both syphilis and gonorrhea. The Soviet Union had made a noble effort which had faltered somewhat, and was according to the available statistics was not nearly so good. There were some figures available for Cuba which were very suggestive, but we have so little about this, we know so little about it, that I didn't dwell on it very much except to say that if their work in this area had continued, and I still don't know any more, it would have been wonderful. But in China it looked as though they had actually brought VD under control. Now since these words were written, since this book has been published, four doctors, four American physicians have been to China, in fact, as recently as this past September, just a couple of months ago. They were Paul Dudley White, the noted cardiologist of Boston, E. Gray Dimond, the provost for public health or medicine at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, Samuel Rosen, the otologist of New York, who is responsible for a delicate surgical operation on the ear, on the stapes bone. He said that he went over to China to teach it to the Chinese and found when he got there that they were already doing it. And Victor Sidel, who is Professor of Community Medicine at the Albert Einstein Medical College in New York. Diamond, Dimond, I don't know how you pronounce it, D-I-M-O-N-D, was quoted in a newsletter of the American Medical Association soon after he got back as saying that with respect to four conditions, prostitution, venereal disease, drug abuse, and alcoholism, China was in his word, quote spotless unquote. Very strong word. He has since written his stuff up in full or in great detail in the current issue. I shouldn't say current, because by the time this is broadcast it will no longer be current. I think December 6th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, and he confirms this. Paul Dudley White has also made a similar statement in "The New York Times". And I talked to Victor Sidel, who is an old friend, when I was in New York some time ago, and he assured me that this is true, that they have eliminated both gonorrhea and syphilis in China, and that as far as syphilis is concerned, they have gotten to the point where they have been able to give up, to abandon, both premarital and prenatal VD testing. To me, this is absolutely extraordinary.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. Incidentally, there is information available about North Korea, too. Oh, no, excuse me, North Vietnam, which indicates a very considerable degree of VD control there in spite of a country devastated by war.
Theodor Rosebury Well, that's the point that I was trying to come to. I don't--Diamond, or Dimond, however he pronounces it, attempts an explanation. He attempts an explanation of this general phenomenon and of their success in public health as a whole. And he says, if I can quote him from memory, that they have over there a spirit in his words which is a kind of combination of Boy Scout, Rotarian, what else? What else? What else? Something of this sort. I'm sorry, I forget the words, I should have brought them with me. But what he is saying reminds me of the spirit that existed among the American people during World War II. And I think that it is inc-- When I mention this to certain people, they say, "Oh, well, China, you know, they do this by compulsion. They do this by force. They line everybody up and give them a shot of penicillin." Frankly, I do not believe that any such thing is possible. I think that our experience in this country with attempts to control drug abuse, for example, by compulsion, attempts to control other things by force, by police action, and so on. I've shown how completely futile this sort of thing is. We can do this kind of thing only, I believe, and the Chinese could have done it only, with complete public cooperation.
Theodor Rosebury Yes, and I do go into the question of prostitution of some length in the book and it's a big subject and not one that one can deal with in a few words. But I think that most women liberationists would probably agree that prostitution is a direct result of male dominance, that it is due, directly relate to the subjection of women in John Stuart Mills' phrase, and that it would disappear if women from the earlier stage were given a reasonable alternative. And I think that this is what was done in China. It's, again, as simple as that, not that it's simple to do, but I think theoretically, in theory, in principle, it's a simple matter.
Studs Terkel We come--Now, I suppose another aspect might be because you have no evidence on Cuba, which would not be of a similar culture. I'm thinking of the puritanical aspect to some extent of China, the puritanical aspect, and to some extent the Soviet Union had that, though it seems to be lax. It's interesting, that there's an increase in VD there, whereas Cuba, if there is advance made, it did not have that puritanical base.
Theodor Rosebury Well, I try to relate the word "Puritanism" in my book to the concept of original sin. Not everybody does that. People will speak of Puritanism in a much looser sense, it's perfectly legitimate to do it.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. I just try to define it more precisely as something which goes back to the Adam and Eve story, and which, again, basically blames the whole thing on women. This is the thing that I'm trying to get away from. If you speak of Puritanism in the sense of less emphasis on sex, of less advertising which produces sexual titillation, of concentration essentially on other things, like on building a new society and so on, if you can talk of Puritanism in those terms, well, then I think the Chinese may very well be Puritans. But the Chinese do not seem to blame any of this on women, they do not seem to subscribe to the doctrine of original sin, as I don't.
Studs Terkel So we come to, the Dr. Theodor Rosebury is my guest, "Microbes and Morals" the book, "The Strange Story of Venereal Disease". We come back to the recurrence of it now, and alarmingly, you say, weren't there treatments, you know, you spoke of penicillin, pro and con, has effects and then has other effects too, isn't?
Theodor Rosebury No, penicillin is one of the greatest drugs ever developed by man. Sure, nothing is perfect, and it has a few imperfections. It produces a very rare severe reaction, really very rare, extremely rare, but penicillin is, perhaps, the least toxic and the most effective of all therapeutic drugs. And it is very largely responsible, it is the only thing we have that can be used for the control--no, let me backtrack a little bit. It isn't the only thing, we have other antibiotics, too, but none of them are quite as good in the long run as penicillin. They all have side effects or something of the sort. Where penicillin can be used, and that means in all people who are not sensitive to it, it is the ideal drug for the control of both syphilis and gonorrhea, and any control program must depend upon penicillin and other antibiotics among, upon treatment, as the main procedure. In other words, as I say several times in the book in different ways, the question of VD control depends on finding people who have it, gonorrhea at any phase, syphilis in its early stages when it's contagious, finding them and treating them effectively. If this could be done, VD could be stamped out just like that.
Theodor Rosebury Yes, it prevents doctors from reporting cases, it prevents people from going into clinics when they think that they might have VD, or just from going in in general, or from running away when they're told that they have it, it prevents people from talking about it, it prevents people from knowing about it, it prevents us from educating children about this subject, and it is necessary to educate children about it. There's been a case of sexually-acquired gonorrhea in a six-year-old boy reported from Boston. There is no way of avoiding talking about this subject to children.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. VD comes from sex. That's--I'm not denying that for a moment. It doesn't come from toilet seats or from bicycles or things, it comes from sex. It comes from genital contact, either genital-genital or genital-oral or any kind of contact of this sort, even occasionally from kissing, but only occasionally, even occasionally on the finger of our physician or our dentist who happens to put his finger on a sore of the disease. He can get it that way and this happens once in a while, but it's contact. And it has to be direct contact which produces the disease.
Theodor Rosebury It is frequently argued that most of the syphilis today is among the young and especially among adolescents. The statistics, as I have been studying them very carefully, do not bear out this contention, and I think, again, the young people are being blamed for something where the blame does not properly rest on their shoulders. Most of the syphilis according to the statistics is in the 20 to 29 age bracket. But the rate of increase of syphilis. Now, in gonorrhea there isn't much difference in these rates in the different age groups. But as far as syphilis is concerned, the rate of increase in the rate of syphilis, the acceleration in the rate of syphilis, is greater in the 30 to 39 and 40 to 49 age groups than it is in the 15 to 19 age group, in the adolescents. This is disputed. There are people who can juggle the figures, I think they're juggling them. At least I've been having a running controversy with a number of people, including some of those, the public health people in Atlanta for whom I have tremendous respect. That's where the statistics come from, but we disagree on our interpretation of these figures.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. And yet, what is true of the increasing visibility of sex, of the increase in advertising, increase in pornography, this is certainly not the result of activity of the 15 to 19 group, this certainly depends on the older people. They are the principal customers for pornography. If you walk down 42nd Street and look in the pornography shops, as I have done more than once, I've never been in to one, incidentally, I ought to go, but I look in. Incidentally, the last time I did it, I saw a woman or two in one of them. That's something new. Usually they're men, and they're very respectable-looking men, well-dressed men, but they're men in their 30s and 40s, they're men in middle life, not kids.
Studs Terkel 'Cause you were talking about the rise in pornography earlier during that time between when Puritanism and Victorianism met and controlled those eras, you know, there it was, so that, again, we come repression, repression must lead to some form of pornography in there, don't we?
Studs Terkel So what then, toward the end you come to your conclusion, Dr. Rosebury, about the book, and you have a marvelous last paragraph, perhaps you could read, we come to the matter of the sledding involved. It's more difficult now with gonorrhea than with syphilis, you [find?].
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. Yes. Because gonorrhea is too fast for the case finding that we need in syphilis, and gonorrhea is tending to become resistant to penicillin, although still not enough to mean too much. Assuming that what they say the Chinese turns out to be true, I suggest a race with them over VD control, something like the race we had with the Russians over Sputnik. Let us turn shame back upon ourselves. What a terrible shame VD is to the United States and get the appropriations rolling and start keeping score.
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Well, I think it is worthwhile to point out that all the technical stuff that anyone would want is here in this book. The whole story of diagnosis, of the nature of the diseases, the different diseases, what is VD and what is not VD, of how these things are treated, of the whole public health approach to this subject, we haven't talked much about those things, but they are all in the book.
Studs Terkel And I should indicate that--to the audience not to worry about that being too difficult because the style is a witty and a salubrious one, and Anthony Burgess, a very distinguished British writer, has this to say about Dr. Rosebury's book. He says, "This has been a, it's actually witty, warm, and engaging. It could have been gloomy, but it's witty, warm, engaging, informative without condescension. Admirably combines scholarship with 'man on the street' humanity. It is altogether a brilliant achievement," says Anthony Burgess, and the reviews have been very enthusiastic, and delighted that Dr. Rosebury, the distinguished bacteriologist and writer and lover of art and music and life is our guest. Viking, the publishers of "Microbes and Morals". Thank you very much.