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Syphilis

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Syphilis

Postby pollymac » Wed Jan 21, 2015 3:46 pm

Could this be a case of syphilis?
A 48 year old man died in an asylum in 1908 having been admitted in 1906. Cause of death on the death certificate states 'general paralysis, convulsive seizures, broncho pneumonia'. The story passed down in the family is that he died as the result of an attack which left him blind and seriously injured. However, I can find no newspaper reports to support this and now suspect that his death may have been the result of syphilis.
His widow outlived him by 45 years, dying at the age of 89. Of their seven children, one died as a baby in 1905 from asthenia but all the others lived into adulthood. Unfortunately the records from the asylum have been destroyed.
Has anyone come across a case like this or got some medical knowledge which could help?
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Re: Syphilis

Postby AdrianB38 » Wed Jan 21, 2015 4:44 pm

I'm no medical expert but General Paralysis of the Insane is a term used for syphilis. The caveat is that lots of terms were fairly all embracing and by today's standards used loosely so I wouldn't necessarily want to put any money on any diagnosis from then being meaningful today.

Sent from my GT-I8190N
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Re: Syphilis

Postby peter kent » Wed Jan 21, 2015 5:31 pm

General paralysis or general paralysis of the insane was not a vague description that could be applied to many conditions. It was well documented and meant tertiary syphilis. Always.

There is an article in Wikipedia under General Paresis.
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Re: Syphilis

Postby phsvm » Wed Jan 21, 2015 7:46 pm

If I remember correctly doesn't syphilis cause eye problems which can manifest itself in the off spring of an infected person?

Were any of his children reported as being blind? If there were a few that have been reported as such I would think it could support the view that he did have the disease (although obviously not conclusive proof).

Just my two pence worth and I'm sure someone with more medical knowledge than me can give a much better answer.
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Re: Syphilis

Postby pollymac » Wed Jan 21, 2015 8:42 pm

Thanks for the replies. I know that none of the children who lived to adulthood suffered with blindness. I believe they would only have been affected if they were born to a mother who had contracted the disease. I'm pretty sure that this is a case of syphilis but I would welcome any more opinions.
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Re: Syphilis

Postby sdup26 » Fri Jan 23, 2015 10:50 am

The death certificate says ‘general paralysis’ and it sounds as if the family seized on this, so they could use the story that he’d been badly injured during an attack. That is, he was effectively paralysed by the violence and needed in-patient care.

Unfortunately for the family story, he was in an asylum, not a hospital, and he almost certainly had general paralysis of the insane (GPI); tertiary syphilis. It’s estimated that in the days before we had the effective treatment we’ve had for many years now, around 20% of patients admitted to asylums had it, the majority being men. Syphilis is referred to as the ‘great imitator’ because it can imitate other diseases by producing so many different symptoms. But the main reasons for asylum care usually involved personality changes, like uncontrolled excitement (probably those convulsive seizures on the death cert) and grandiose delusions. Physically, patients became increasingly incapacitated and eventually bedridden, until they died.

Syphilis is infectious early on, but not in the late stage, so a wife/husband wouldn’t necessarily be infected. If a pregnant woman was infected and the disease transmitted to her developing foetus, there may be a miscarriage, or a stillbirth, or the baby could be born with problems affecting the teeth, eyes, bones, or hearing (deafness), as examples.
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Re: Syphilis

Postby pollymac » Sat Jan 24, 2015 8:07 am

This 'story' was actually what sparked my interest in family history. My, now almost 94 year old, father told me some years ago that his grandfather died in 'hospital' after being attacked, leaving a widow and six children. It was quite a shock when I eventually (quite a common surname) tracked down the death certificate. Having now done some research on the subject of general paralysis, I feel sure that the cause of death was syphilis and the tale of violence was invented to hide the reality. At the time of admission to the asylum his children were aged between 6 and 15. Did any of them know the cause of his illness? The symptoms can be extreme and I'm sure would have very distressing to witness. I hope they didn't know and I am certainly not telling my father what I now suspect to be the truth.
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Re: Syphilis

Postby sdup26 » Sat Jan 24, 2015 3:22 pm

In your shoes, neither would I. Your father believed what he was told, and presumably trusted the person who told him, so there's no point - and no kindness - in giving him the reality. It wouldn't help anyone, and of course, there's always the possibility that the story is true and we're the ones who've got it wrong.
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Re: Syphilis

Postby Susan.Stone.25455 » Sat Feb 14, 2015 2:18 am

I discovered several years ago that my maternal 1st cousin 3x removed died in Bethlehem Royal Hospital in Southwark, London (commonly known as Bedlam) from Syphilis in 1902. I had hit a brick wall in trying to find the date of his death. I couldn't find him in the 1901 census, until by chance I stumbled over a search in Institutions and found him as a patient in Bethlehem only identifiable by his initials. I was then able to find his death and ordered a copy of the Death Certificate which stated that he had died from General Paralysis of the Insane. Not having a clue what this meant I looked it up on a web site that gave explanations for old medical terms. I was shocked to discover that he had in fact died from Syphilis at the age of 42. He was an eminent Professor of History and English Literature at Christchurch University in New Zealand and had been forced to resign as a result of his condition. He had attended both Cambridge and Oxford universities and won many prizes at both as well as publishing several books on history and literature. It struck me as such a waste of an obviously brilliant mind. Another shock awaited me however! At the same time I looked up the medical term on my maternal 2nd great grandmother's Death Certificate which was Softening of the Spine. I had assumed this was Osteoporosis, but found to my horror that she had also died of Syphilis, it having affected her spine rather than her brain as in my cousin's case. The Syphilis must have been transmitted to her by my 2nd great grandfather who had a reputation as a stage door Johnny! They had 4 children, and thankfully none were affected. Whereas she died at the age of 55, he lived to 76 years of age which seems most unfair. My great grandfather had a falling out with his father, and cut all ties with him not long after his mother's death. Unlike his younger brother and sister, he would have been old enough to appreciate the manner of her death, and I suspect this was the cause of the rift that lasted for the rest of their lives.
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Re: Syphilis

Postby pollymac » Sat Feb 14, 2015 2:09 pm

Two very sad stories, Susan. I hadn't heard of Softening of the Spine. The more I discover about this subject the more I realise what a devastating disease it was.
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