History of Sexually Transmitted Disease

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Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have been known to mankind for centuries. Before the advent of modern medicine, people's lack of awareness and understanding of STDs contributed to the widespread transmission of the infections while few or no treatments were available to treat the conditions.

In medieval times, syphilis and gonorrhoea were two of the most prevalent STDs in Europe. One theory suggest that syphilis was spread by crew members who picked up the disease on the voyages led by Christopher Columbus. They are thought to have contracted syphilis while in the Americas and to have then spread it on their return when docking at ports in Europe. Sailors are also thought to be responsible for the spread of gonorrhoea from Tahiti to New Zealand during the Cook voyages.

Some STDs can have severe, life-changing consequences; syphilis, for example, can eventually cause progressive destruction of the brain and spinal cord, leading to mental dysfunction and hallucinations, speech problems and general paresis.

Treatment over the centuries

In the 18th and 19th centuries, mercury, arsenic and sulphur were commonly used to treat venereal disease, which often resulted in serious side effects and many people died of mercury poisoning. The first known effective treatment for syphilis called salvarsan or arsphenamine was introduced in 1910.

In the 20th Century, the advent of penicillin and other antibiotics led to an effective cure of bacterial STDs. This led to the public perceiving the illnesses as less of a threat and promiscuous conduct continued. In the late 20th century, the transmission of viral STDs such as HIV and herpes arose, infections that are not curable and in some cases may be fatal.

Hospital treatment of venereal diseases

Due to the stigma attached to STDs, people would often hesitate to seek help when the disease was in its initial stages, while continuing to transmit the infection to unsuspecting sexual partners. In 1746, at the London Lock Hospital, the first treatment for venereal disease was made available for those who sought help.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Contagious Diseases Act was passed in order to arrest and treat suspected prostitutes.

Tracing sexual partners with STDs

It was in the late 19th and early 20th century that the importance of tracing the sexual partners of a person infected with an STD was recognized. Soon, sexual health clinics were set up to identify and treat individuals with STDs and their partners, to prevent spread in the general population.

Another major problem that arose was an increase in adolescent sexual activity in the mid 20th Century. This led to widespread infection among younger age groups and also changed the way healthcare policy makers tried to raise awareness through campaigns.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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  1. John Carter John Carter Canada says:

    Native Americans died by a common cold by Europeans and you think they will live while infected by an STD? You are out of your mind, there is no proof of this. Do your research.

    • Sjoerd Knobben Sjoerd Knobben Netherlands says:

      your logic is invalid. It was/were "COMMON" virus(es) for europeans, so their immune systems were capable of defending itself. It doesnt mean it was a simple and harmless virus and will be destructive to a immune system that has no similar experience. I don't know about proof, but it's plausible, that this STD originates from native Americans. Not all NA died + you can give the STD in the incubation period of the 'cold' virus.

      • Christopher Hill Christopher Hill United States says:

        Sheep are the source of syphilis. This is a fact that is well known. Sheep are not native to the Americas. The fact that a doctor or educator is not able to give the correct facts is ridiculous. Good grief!

  2. John Carter John Carter Canada says:

    Our non-human ancestors had STIs. Animals have STIs. Insects have STIs. You can pick up chlamydia from animals like horses and birds (just by handling them, not by having sex with them). Syphilis evolved in sheep and made the jump to humans. HIV is a mutation of a monkey disease, simian immunodeficiency virus, that jumped to humans when hunters hunting monkeys for meat (yes, that's a thing people do) came in contact with the blood of infected monkeys. syphilis is from sheep Native Americans didn't own or Farm Sheep. That would be in the middle East or India.)

  3. Christopher Hill Christopher Hill United States says:

    There were sheep native to America. But sheep have been in Asia and Africa and Europe for centuries before Columbus. It is unrealistic to think that a disease occurred all over Europe and Asia just from 30 or 40 individuals.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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