Venereal Disease in the Age of Antibiotics
At the height of Thomas Parran's campaign against syphilis in 1940, Warner Bros. produced a feature film celebrating Paul Ehrlich's chemotherapeutic breakthrough of 1910 -- the discovery of Salvarsan. Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet starred Edward G. Robinson in the lead role, toiling against the hypocrisy of his time to advance medical progress. Ehrlich's prediction of the discovery of specific chemotherapeutic agents for specific diseases -- "magic bullets" to root out and destroy infecting organisms -- was the promise of modern medicine. Indeed, the so-called biomedical model of disease and treatment, upon which most twentieth-century therapeutics are based, stems from Ehrlich's initial discovery. Penicillin, discovered to be effective in treating syphilis and gonorrhea in 1943, seemed to be the answer to the search for a magic bullet. Unfortunately, however, the promise of the magic bullet has never been fulfilled. The control of many infectious diseases through antibiotics revealed a whole new set of systemic, chronic diseases, unresponsive to these drugs. Moreover, many infectious diseases, especially viral infections, still cannot be treated effectively. 1 And finally, even those infections that respond to antibiotics are still prevalent. Today, venereal diseases persist in epidemic proportions in spite of antibiotics. Effective against certain microorganisms, the magic bullets cannot combat the social and cultural determinants of these infections.
As World War II loomed on the horizon, the American military relied on traditional means of prevention and treatment for the venereal diseases. Penicillin was not to become widely available in the military until 1944. Instead of depending on therapeutics, anti-venereal programs developed during mobilization were closely modeled on those instituted during World War I. In early 1940 a joint meeting of the military medical services, the Public Health Service, and