Syphilis: A Little Valentine’s Day Love Story

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Photo Credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of England 

We don’t know much about her. We don’t even know her name. What we do know is that the woman who wore the above prosthetic in the mid-19th century was suffering from a severe case of syphilis.

Before the discovery of penicillin in 1928, syphilis was an incurable disease. Its symptoms were as terrifying as they were unrelenting. Those who suffered from it long enough could expect to develop unsightly skin ulcers, paralysis, gradual blindness, dementia and “saddle nose,” a grotesque deformity which occurs when the bridge of the nose caves into the face.

stlcfo00239This deformity was so common amongst those suffering from the pox (as it was sometimes called) that “no nose clubs” sprung up in London. On 18 February 1874, the Star reported: “Miss Sanborn tells us that an eccentric gentleman, having taken a fancy to see a large party of noseless persons, invited every one thus afflicted, whom he met in the streets, to dine on a certain day at a tavern, where he formed them into a brotherhood.”[1] The man, who assumed the name Mr. Crampton for these clandestine parties, entertained his “noseless’” friends every month until he died a year later, at which time the group “unhappily dissolved.”[2]

The 19th century was particularly rife with syphilis. Because of its prevalence, both physicians and surgeons treated victims of the disease. Many treatments involved the use of mercury, hence giving rise to the saying: “One night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.” Mercury could be administered in the form of calomel (mercury chloride), an ointment, a steam bath or pill. Unfortunately, the side effects could be as painful and terrifying as the disease itself. Many patients who underwent mercury treatments suffered from extensive tooth loss, ulcerations and neurological damage. In many cases, people died from significant mercury poisoning.

For those determined to avoid the pox altogether, condoms made from animal membrane and secured with a silk ribbon were available [below], but these were outlandishly expensive. Moreover, many men shunned them for being uncomfortable and cumbersome. In 1717, the surgeon, Daniel Turner, wrote:

The Condum being the best, if not only Preservative our Libertines have found out at present; and yet by reason of its blunting the Sensation, I have heard some of them acknowledge, that they had often chose to risk a Clap, rather than engage cum Hastis sic clypeatis [with spears thus sheathed].[3]

13Everyone blamed each other for the burdensome condom. The French called it “la capote anglaise” (the English cape), while the English called it the “French letter.” Even more unpleasant was the fact that once one procured a condom, he was expected to use it repeatedly. Unsurprisingly, syphilis continued to rage despite the growing availability of condoms during the Victorian period.

Which brings me back to the owner of the prosthetic nose. Eventually, she lost her teeth and palate after prolonged exposure to mercury treatments. Her husband—who may have been the source of her suffering—finally died from the disease, leaving her a widow. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the poor, unfortunate Mrs X.

According to records at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, the woman found another suitor despite her deformities. After the wedding, she sought out the physician, James Merryweather, and sold the contraption to him for £3. The reason? Her new husband liked her just the way she was – no nose and all!

And that, kind readers, is a true Valentine’s Day love story…Ignore the part where she most certainly transmitted the disease to her new lover.

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1. Origin of the No Nose Club. Star, Issue 1861 (18 February 1874), p. 3.
2. Ibid.
3. Daniel Turner, Syphilis: A Practical Treatise on the Venereal Disease (1717), p. 74.

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