WELL CONTENT WITH ONE FIRESHIP: THE SOCIOMEDICAL IMPACT OF VENEREAL DISEASE ON THE CHANNEL FLEET, 1793-1815.
(Under the direction of Professor Wade Dudley) Department of History, 2009
Throughout the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, the Royal Navy of Great Britain did not wage its most arduous battles with the well-honed gunnery of its men nor the tactical genius of its commanders. Naval surgeons and physicians fought a host of daunting ailments and diseases throughout the conflict, securing both triumphant victories and grudging truces alike. Syphilis and gonorrhea, venereal disease in the eighteenth-century union of the two illnesses, presented an especially formidable opponent to medical personnel and naval leadership. Reducing the impact of this condition entailed struggling against both its social repercussions and its equally arduous and costly cure.
This thesis uncovers the sociomedical effect of venereal disease upon the Royal Navy during the tumultuous conflict with Britain's ancient enemy. In sharp contrast to other disease endemic to the wooden world and shorebound society, this ailment enveloped sufferers within a web of moral suspicion and religious castigation that affected their professional and personal lives. Addressing this particular health challenge involved far more than mitigating patients' symptoms and ensuring a thorough cure. Accordingly, this thesis explores the impact of the disease on broader cultural assumptions surrounding the naval world, subsequent disruptions to ships' populations, and patient demographics, with a particular eye to the specific social consequences of the disease in a strictly maritime context.
The various challenges involving any study of sexually transmitted illnesses have prompted historians to undertake an equal variety of scholastic endeavors. Medical historians have attempted to discern the relationship between Old and New World protean bacteria, including treponema pallidium subspecies pallidium (veneral syphilis), and the epidemiological dimensions of the oft-studied Columbian Exchange. Their work constitutes a valuable addition to historical and medical scholarship, one that compliments the contribution of social histories.
The social stigmas surrounding sexually transmitted illnesses figure prominently in sweeping diachronic analyses of the diseases and their societal repercussions. Richard Davenport-Hines and Bruce Thomas Boehrer draw compelling parallels between syphilis in the early modern world and AIDS in the present day, in regards to the widespread derision, fear, and ostracism that patients afflicted with these illnesses faced and continue to endure. Peter Lewis Allen argues the potent trifecta of the disease itself, the agonizing nature of its supposed cure (mercury) and the fervent outrage with which religious leaders castigated its sufferers set a dangerous precedent, which still lingers into the current era. Focusing on the moral and psychological dimensions of sexually transmitted illnesses that influenced damning indictments of patients and their presumed deviant behavior, Davenport-Hines overlooks the pragmatic, less moralistic responses sexually transmitted illnesses demand.
Historians narrowing their scope to more discrete chronological periods acknowledge societal stigmas even as they examine the practical solutions societies employed to combat the encroachment of these illnesses upon its members. Kevin Siena, studying the institutional response to syphilis in eighteenth-century Great Britain, asserts that personnel at London's royal hospitals and parish workhouses looked past their own moral qualms and apprehension to provide treatment to stigmatized venereal patients. Private charitable medical institutions had the luxury of turning away those they deemed unworthy of care, but administrators at public facilities could not afford to discriminate. The proliferation of venereal disease throughout society demanded action, not morally driven paralysis. Although Siena recognizes the continuing marginalization of venereal patients in royal hospitals and workhouses, including physical segregation, prohibitive treatment charges, and glaring double standards that faced female venereal patients, he contends that, to a certain extent, pragmatism triumphed over ostracism in influencing British society's medical response to venereal disease.