Genealogy – Does Syphilis Play a Part in Your Family Tree?

Recently, I watched the Martin Freeman episode from the BBC series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’. The concept of the whole thing is quite fascinating with various celebrities being helped to trace their family trees. For the genealogist, the series is a great help in learning how and where to find out the various pieces of information necessary to put together the history of your own forebears.

However, this episode stood out from all the rest because of the dramatic discoveries in the latter stages with the revelation that his great grandfather, Richard, was born blind and fathered Martin’s grandfather, Leonard, late in life.

The researchers dug up various proofs giving us the story of Richard, who became a church organist in Worthing, fathering six children with one wife, who died, and then another six with his second. A notice in the parish magazine then refers mysteriously to his departure from his job and the town, making an allusion to some sort of scandal.

Richard reappears in Hull a few years later with a third wife but, this time, she is also blind. They succeeded in bringing up six children (including Martin’s grandfather, Leonard) before Richard passed away at the age of about 70.

On further investigation, it transpired that they had Ada had borne Richard not six, but 12 live children and, armed with the birth certificates of four of the children who did not survive, Martin sought the advice of an expert from Great Ormond Street. Together they worked out that these four had born and died of some form of ‘failure to thrive’ within a six to eight year period.

In the years leading up to and just after the turn of the 20th century, the most common cause of this was congenital syphilis, an illness which can also cause blindness, either at birth or in the first few years due to the glazing over of the cornea.

It transpired that Ada had not been born blind, but had lost her sight at the age of three and the death certificate of her older brother showed that he had died a month before she was conceived of ‘constitutional syphilis’ at the age of just three months. This meant that he presented with symptoms that were undeniable and could not be listed as mere ‘failure to thrive’, confirming that the most likely cause of Ada’s becoming blind as a small child was that same illness.

Common perception is that syphilis, in those days, was fatal, going through varying symptoms including a horrible facial rash which eventually caused your nose to fall off, before you went mad.

The consensus of the experts was that Ada had been born with congenital syphilis (ie caught from her mother and transmitted during the pregnancy) and recovered without treatment because it is possible in certain cases for the disease to ‘work its way out of the system’ over a period of four to six years.

However, having had the disease once does not mean that you are forever after immune. She had, then, been re-infected by her husband, Richard, passing it on to her own fetus in utero. She managed to recover a second time and went on to have more children who were unaffected by the disease.

Apparently, if a woman who has born several healthy children suddenly goes through a period of 6-8 years where she has a series of miscarriages, still births or neo-natal deaths, then syphilis is the most likely cause.

Kassovitz’s Law of 1875 dictates ‘the spontaneous gradual diminution in intensity of syphilitic transmission’. So a number of births will be miscarriages, then stillbirths, then unhealthy children who die quickly, unhealthy children who survive and then back to healthy children again.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease which first appeared in the 1490s in Southern Europe and rapidly spread across the continent, where it was also known as the French Disease. Due to its extreme contagiousness and hideous symptoms, it was as feared as the Plague.

Many have said that Henry VIII suffered from it and this was evidenced by the ulcer on his leg and his inability to father healthy children. However, this is not totally born out by the evidence – based on Kassovitz’s Law. Catherine of Aragon was pregnant six times. She gave birth to four boys who lived for a few months or were stillbirths. Then she had a healthy daughter, the woman who became Bloody Mary, followed by another daughter who died after a few weeks. In that time, Henry also fathered the illegitimate Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, who went on to die at the age of 17. Anne Boleyn’s first child was Elizabeth, followed by two miscarriages. Jane Seymour’s first and only pregnancy produced Edward VI, who, although not the most robust of children, did survive until he was 16.

It was not until 1928 and the arrival of penicillin that a cure was found.

In the late 1890s/early 20th century, syphilis was very common and extremely contagious. Most people passed it on without even knowing that they had it. Whether the disease or the method of its contraction had anything to do with Richard’s sudden departure from his respectable job and lifestyle in Worthing, we will never know, but it certainly makes for some salacious conjecture.

Statistics show that one in ten people in Britain had the disease at that time. So, as the sexual health expert said: ‘of all the people currently engaged in genealogy searches, at least 10% have a sporting chance of finding syphilis in their family tree’.

It’s certainly a very sobering thought.

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