The STD epidemic is not limited to today’s youth – oh no. Some STDs (and their painful, scientifically dubious treatments) date back several hundreds of years. Let’s take a look at some of the older ones and the myths about them that caused some pretty unorthodox treatments throughout the history of STDs:
Herpes has been around since ancient Greek times – in fact, we owe the Greeks for the name, which roughly means “to creep or crawl” – presumably a reference to the spread of skin lesions. Although local STD testing wasn’t available until long after the virus was identified in 1919, early civilisations could see that it was a real problem – the Roman emperor Tiberius introduced a ban on kissing at public events to try and curb the spread. Not much is known about early attempts to treat the disease, but be grateful you weren’t around during the physician Celsus’ experimental phase: he advocated that the sores be cauterised with a hot iron!
The problem certainly never went away – Shakespeare referred to herpes as “blister plagues”, implying the extent of the epidemic. One common belief at the time was that the disease was caused by insect bites, which seems like an obvious explanation given the sores that the sexually transmitted disease creates.
Mercury was the remedy of choice for syphilis in the middle ages – the understanding of the sexually transmitted disease’s routes and this treatment gave birth to the expression: “A night in the arms of Venus leads to a lifetime on Mercury”. This was administered orally or via direct contact with the skin, though one of the most unlikely methods involved fumigation, where the patient was placed in a closed box with only their head poking out. The box contained mercury and a fire was started beneath it causing it to vaporise. It wasn’t hugely effective, but was very, very uncomfortable. Because Syphilis sores have a tendency to vanish on their own after a while, many people believed they were cured by just about any remedy in the STD’s history!
As the sexually transmitted disease became better understood, the ability to cure it increased. In 1908, the arsenic based drug Salvarsan was developed and, while not 100% effective, was a massive step forward. Its lack of effectiveness in the tertiary phase of the STD led to another disease being used as a cure: malaria. Because it seemed that those with high fevers could be cured of syphilis, malaria was used to induce an initial fever, which was considered an acceptable risk because malaria could be treated with quinine. Penicillin eventually confined both these treatments to STD history.
Before the days of local STD testing, Gonnorhea was often mistaken for Syphilis, as without a microscope, the two had very similar symptoms and were often silent. Of course, if you were “diagnosed” with the disease, you were in for an unfortunate treatment. According to some, the syringes found aboard the Mary Rose was designed to inject liquid mercury down the urethra of an crew suffering from the disease. By the 19th century, silver nitrate was a widely used drug, later to be replaced by Protargol. A colloidal silver replaced this, and was widely used until antibiotics came to the rescue in the 1940s.
So if you think that local STD testing and treatment is a painful process now, give a thought to the poor folks who had mercury or arsenic treatment all those years ago – and thank God for antibiotics!