Arts Week 2019: Telling Stories about Syphilis

Christine Slobogin, PhD candidate in the History of Art discusses an Arts Week event about the history of Syphilis.

Image: Syphilis, Richard Tennant Cooper, 1912

Dr Anne Hanley began her talk this Monday with: ‘Welcome everyone, to this afternoon of syphilis,’ going on to give a trigger warning that if any audience member did not want to see ‘ulcerated genitalia,’ then perhaps this paper may not be for them. This arresting introduction set the tone for the entire presentation, rife with images of the ulcers that Hanley had promised but also full of thoughtful discussion on narratives of disease, widespread cultural fear, bleak Victorian literature, and propagandistic film.

The main purpose of Hanley’s paper was to trace the shift in the way that syphilis was depicted in Britain’s public imagination between the Victorian and interwar periods. Because syphilis was such a stigmatised venereal disease (VD), men and women who were infected, as well as their relatives were more likely to suppress their stories about their experiences rather than write them down or describe them in another way. Therefore, historians are often thwarted as they search for patient’s perspectives on what it was really like to experience the pustules, the deteriorating nasal cartilage, and even the sink into insanity associated with neurosyphilis.

A large factor in the stigmatising nature of the disease was that it led either to the grave or to the asylum. And this was the narrative that was espoused by Victorian authors when writing about syphilis. Hanley described how novelists used the illness as a plot point to show the medical and moral consequences of transgressing sexual mores and expectations of the time. These stories told about syphilis often followed a similar trajectory, in which a woman and her children are ruined by the moral wrongdoings of the husband. The woman, expected to be innocent and therefore ignorant of sexual matters, can become an easy victim of a morally-suspect spouse and a rampant venereal disease.

This lack of knowledge was compounded at the doctor’s office once the woman sought treatment for her worrying and mysterious illness. Hanley described various medical men who used dangerous paternalism to justify keeping syphilitic women in the dark about their health. After all, the truth could result in a broken home and the damaged reputation of her husband. Often the treatment of these ill women would carry on under the pretence of a different disease, without the patient knowing the full extent of her condition. But sometimes the husbands prevented treatment from happening or from finishing for fear of the monstrous syphilitic truth coming out.

Women could stay ignorant of the risks and symptoms of venereal diseases in the Victorian era because public health information was scarce. The only stories that were told about syphilis were those in the plots of the novels previously described. But this double standard of men having all of the knowledge and therefore power when it came to syphilitic infection began to shift in Britain in the interwar years. The British Social Hygiene Council was established and with it came advertisements for VD clinics through posters and word of mouth but, most importantly, films.

These cinematic visualisations of syphilis contained narratives distinct from the bleak and fatalistic ones of the Victorian-era novels. These films were often light and entertaining moral tales crafted so that viewers could identify with the characters. In one, Any Evening After Work (1930), a man contracts a venereal disease and considers forgoing treatment until his daughter is afflicted with the illness. While the film does use scare tactics to get people to have themselves checked at VD clinics, the overall narrative is that the little girl will get better, and everything will turn out alright—as long as the proper precautions are taken and help is sought.

This shift from pessimistic written narratives to more uplifting and informational films caused an increase of British people going to VD clinics (with both diagnosable diseases and with false alarms). Both ways of telling stories about syphilis fostered an atmosphere of syphilophobia, but the films fulfilled their propagandistic purpose of improving Britain’s sexual health. Hanley argued that to tell stories about syphilis, we need both the fictional and the medical to understand the full cultural narrative of the disease.

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Welcoming the research scientists of tomorrow

Trishant, Jenny and Alex, all PhD candidates in the Department of Biological Sciences, were part of a team who invited local secondary school students to Birkbeck to take part in scientific experiments and to show them the College’s suite of electron microscopes. They recount the experience here. 

On the 29 March, our normally peaceful research institute – the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology (ISMB) at Birkbeck – became a bustling classroom. We – a team of research scientists from the ISMB Electron Microscopy laboratory – were hosting a group of thirty 14-15-year-olds from Regent High School in Camden to plunge them into the unfamiliar world of biomolecular research. The visitors, who are on their way to taking GCSEs, were taken on a whistle-stop tour of our high-tech research facilities, and even given the chance for some hands-on experiences! This was in no small part to show off our suite of electron microscopes, with our visitors having the rare opportunity to see our brand-new world leading electron microscope, the Titan Krios. We hoped our efforts would enable our visitors to get engaged with the exciting world of research, help them understand more about what goes on at universities, and, most importantly, stimulate their scientific curiosity.

In groups of six, the students were given a taste of all stages of the process of structural biology studies – from preparing biological samples to the final data analysis. Work that would usually take months was showcased within one afternoon to convey the importance and excitement behind the scientific method at each step. After a discussion of cells, molecules, and atoms, students were quick to appreciate the applications of light and electron microscopy. The importance of understanding the underlying principles of living things and the joy of discovery were quickly grasped by the students, who were engaged and inquisitive. They were not shy to ask questions not only about the science, but about the humans behind it – “What does a PhD student do?”, “Why did you chose to become a scientist?”, “What is a typical day in your job like?”. Some openly expressed their long-standing fascination with biology, chemistry, and physics. Others were just beginning their exploration of different disciplines and discussed the impact that scientific developments have had on their lives. Throughout the day, we and our visitors had valuable conversations centered around scientific concepts and beyond.

After much fun and awe for our visitors, our day wrapped up and we were fortunate enough to receive feedback in the form of a board of sticky notes. It was reassuring to read that the students each enjoyed their visit – something that was clear throughout the day. For many of them, this event was the first opportunity on a light microscope, looking at specimens ranging from developing chick embryos to the striped DNA from a fruit fly, or getting close to a behemoth multi-million-pound electron microscope. Both students and teachers spoke with us about the benefits of getting hands-on with equipment and elements of the scientific process, and even asked about opportunities available in higher education. From our point of view, this event was a success in many ways, allowing us to learn from each other and our visitors. We opened a small part of our world of research, and in doing so, we hope we inspired the next generation of scientists.

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Pitch perfect: How Birkbeck helped Marisa reach her graduation goals

Marisa Ewers, graduating this week with an MSc in Sports Management and the Business of Football, juggled her studies with a professional football career, playing midfield for Birmingham City Women’s FC.

For the past 12 years Marisa Ewers has been playing football at a professional level, and for the past two, she’s combined this full-on career with an MSc in Sports Management and the Business of Football at Birkbeck, University of London.

She started playing football as a child, joining her local boys’ team in Hamburg, Germany. But after being told she was no longer allowed to play with the boys when she turned 13, she found a girls’ team down the road in Altona. As she got older, she continued playing for the various German National Youth Teams (Under 15s, Under 17s, Under 19s and Under 23s) and for Hamburger SV, quickly moving from the second team to the first team aged 17.

Now playing midfield for Birmingham City Women’s FC, she is highly adept at taking on new challenges but she acknowledges it has been hard work undertaking her studies at the same time as her rigorous training schedule. “You are being asked to show a lot of commitment,” she said, “but I would always recommend female footballers to do something else, alongside playing football, to prepare yourself for after your sporting career.”

Travelling from Birmingham to London two or three times a week for lectures, she says, could be especially gruelling, but her tutors were very understanding of her multiple commitments. “Evening courses are a great thing for players who want to study alongside their carer. Studying Sport Management helps in particular, as you are surrounded by people who understand the effort you put in.”

Hailing from Germany, the master’s held an extra challenge for Marisa in that she had to complete her assignments and follow lectures in a second language. “But now I can look back and say ‘yeah you actually have a master’s degree in a different language’” she says, “and I think that this is great for my CV and it will help me for my career after football.”

And what might she look for in her career after football? “In an ideal world I see myself working within a professional football club,” she says. “Team management and scouting are areas that sound interesting to me and I‘ve already gained some experience in these departments.”

Are you a woman interested in studying at Birkbeck’s Sports Business Centre? Find out about the Edwards Scholarship for Women in Sport.

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“Age is just a number – but studying keeps the mind active”

Ghana born Anthony Mensah is graduating with an LLM Human Rights aged 78, and plans to devote his time and energy to fighting Female Genital Mutiliation (FGM) in sub-Saharan Africa.

Anthony with Professor Bill Bowring

I am originally from Ghana but came to the UK in 1966 as a trainee accountant, and am now a British citizen.

Sometime in 2011, I saw a newspaper advert for Birkbeck for a two year diploma course in Law. I applied, and was sent a problem question in the post to answer. I answered it to the best of my ability, and was invited to interview at the School of Law by the Dean at the time, Professor Patricia Tuitt. She was impressed with my performance, and I was thrilled when she invited me to enrol on the LLB course instead of the diploma.

My first and second years were a bit of a struggle, and a stark contrast between my professional accountancy course. Patricia Costall, an Academic Support Tutor, helped me understand how to write an academic essay and properly reference my work – I am very grateful for her help during my course and I know a lot of other students will agree with me that she was very helpful. I really enjoyed the lectures from most of my tutors; Fred Cowell, Piyel Halder, Adam Gearey, Leslie Moran and Patricia Tuitt, to name a few; and I had good relationships with my classmates.

My wife, Emma, was very excited for me throughout my studies. She gave me lots of good advice and encouragement.  I owe her an immeasurable debt of gratitude for the support and encouragement she has given me. Without her, I don’t think I would have got the marks in my LLB that I needed to proceed onto my LLM in Human Rights.

I decided to enrol on the LLM because I am passionate about tackling the complex Human Rights issues in Sub-Saharan Africa, where I am from. In particular, in the future I intend to lead a crusade against Female Genital Mutilation which is common practice in almost all countries on the continent.

I didn’t think about my age when I was applying. Age is just a number. However studying later in life is good for exercising the brain. So I would advise anyone thinking about starting a degree to start looking into it and making enquiries. You will feel so confident in yourself when you complete it.

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