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Syphilis

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Re: Syphilis

Postby sdup26 » Sat Feb 14, 2015 4:16 pm

That’s a sad story, especially regarding the family rift. It’s understandable, because our ancestors were aware that syphilis was sexually-transmitted, so the only conclusion they could draw was that anyone suffering from it must be at best weak-willed and lacking in character, and at worst, totally dissolute. Your great-grandfather wouldn’t have cared that one regretted sexual contact by his father could have been enough, and would see only the effect on his mother. That sort of revelation could affect far more people than we realise. The Victorians didn't know an organism was responsible for syphilis, there were no laboratory tests for it, no cure, and because it could mimic other conditions, the cause of death on a certificate was often the disease being mimicked. On that basis, many people could have had syphilis in their family history, but wouldn’t know it.
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Re: Syphilis

Postby PSB » Thu Feb 19, 2015 12:26 pm

I have discovered a similar case in my wife's family history dating back to the 1890s.

Caught stealing chickens the man was sentenced to prison. His doctor at his trial said he had been suffering from epileptic fits and was not in full control of his actions. Witnesses had described his strange expressions and bizarre behaviour. Within 6 months he was transferred from prison to the county asylum. Here he was shown as having far advanced dementia and general paralysis, could hardly speak and had no memory. His habits were filthy. Their supposed cause was probably hereditary. He died some 2 months later at the age of 35, the death certificate showing Progressive paralysis of the insane. Like you, my research into some of these phrases led me to believe he had syphilis.

At the time of arrest he was a Market Gardener but had previously been in the Navy, as had his father before him, though his death at 54 was down to bronchitis debility.
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Re: Syphilis

Postby pollymac » Thu Feb 19, 2015 7:03 pm

Another very interesting but desperately sad story. Having located case notes for asylum patients suffering from General Paralysis, I realise it had so many extremely unpleasant and distressing symptoms. I do not have a medical background but am finding it a fascinating subject for research. I'm sure many more people will discover that their ancestors suffered from this dreadful disease.
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Re: Syphilis

Postby coopernicola » Thu Feb 19, 2015 10:01 pm

Living in a town which was a large seaport, and being a medical microbiologist, means syphilis has been something I was taught about many years ago at college. I never thought it would continue to be an intriguing topic more than thirty years later now I've become an amateur genealogist. During most of my career we only diagnosed a few elderly patients with syphilis, mostly ex sailors, often with symptoms of 'dementia'. Worryingly by the time I retired we were beginning to find young people who had been infected. It's quite a sneaky disease with very few early symptoms after which people recover and can then pass the infection on for decades. In old age it will still cause changes in personality and symptoms affecting the mind, something we are now reminding our younger colleagues about at meetings and tutorials. Most importantly it is can still be found in newborn babies if the mother has been infected.
I am currently researching one branch of my family between 1860 & 1890 (two generations of sisters marrying cousins and all the men sailors) were neonatal deaths were very common. I have a theory that congenital syphilis was the most likely cause and am collecting death certificates to help give me more clues. Most of the father's did not live beyond 45, being lost at sea, so their cause of deaths are largely unhelpful. It gets expensive buying certificates and there were many deaths so it will be some time before I gather sufficient evidence. It could also be something genetic, but the early certificates point to an infectious disease as a common cause of death so far.
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Re: Syphilis

Postby ksouthall » Fri Feb 20, 2015 2:41 am

Have you looked at the Martin Freeman episode of WDYTYA? It covered this topic:-

http://www.whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine. ... in-freeman
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Re: Syphilis

Postby coopernicola » Fri Feb 20, 2015 9:30 am

ksouthall wrote:Have you looked at the Martin Freeman episode of WDYTYA?

It was after this I started thinking! A good starting point if you think there is syphilis in your tree!
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Re: Syphilis

Postby ksouthall » Fri Feb 20, 2015 9:52 am

coopernicola wrote:
ksouthall wrote:Have you looked at the Martin Freeman episode of WDYTYA?

It was after this I started thinking! A good starting point if you think there is syphilis in your tree!


Me too. My great-great-great-uncle was a soldier. According to his military discharge record, he had several episodes of primary syphilis. He was one of only three children and his father was also a soldier, although he is not known to have had syphilis, according to his military discharge record. I tried to find out if there had been any other siblings. The first was born in 1836, the second in 1838 and the third in 1854 but I could not find any evidence of children who died in infancy so assume that he caught it whilst making the most of his time in different places.
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Re: Syphilis

Postby pollymac » Sat Feb 21, 2015 8:01 am

Both episodes of "Secrets from the Asylum" also featured cases of syphilis.

I wonder if this topic would make an interesting article for WDYTYA magazine. I'm sure there are other people who are unaware that the death certificates they have for their ancestors may reveal clues to suggest syphilis - as I was.
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Re: Syphilis

Postby Sylcec » Sat Feb 21, 2015 1:01 pm

I agree with you Polly, but suspect that an article that only dealt with syphilis might be a bit too confronting for the general readership. However there other diseases which were dreaded and often spoken of euphemistically, (particularly TB) and an article which encompasses these and some historic medical terms would be useful and interesting.
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Re: Syphilis

Postby ksouthall » Sat Feb 21, 2015 6:48 pm

Sylcec wrote:I agree with you Polly, but suspect that an article that only dealt with syphilis might be a bit too confronting for the general readership. However there other diseases which were dreaded and often spoken of euphemistically, (particularly TB) and an article which encompasses these and some historic medical terms would be useful and interesting.


I agree with Sylvia. An article on historic medical terms would be useful, especially if it could be linked to social history or significant events; e.g. known hard winters, floods, volcanic eruptions, etc.
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