Book Reviews -- Chicago's War on Syphilis, 1937-1940: The Times, the Trib, and the Clap Doctor by Suzanne Poirier

Article excerpt

Poirier, Suzanne. Chicago's War on Syphilis, 1937-1940: The Times, the Trib, and the Clap Doctor. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995. 271 pp. $42.50

The Chicago Syphilis Control Program, designed to identify and provide treatment for people with syphilis, began in 1937 with funding from the Social Security Act, which was approved the year before. Baltimore and New York had started similar programs earlier in the decade. Suzanne Poirier's purpose is to provide an account of the Chicago program through three perspectives--a popularized, attention-seeking perspective, an insider's personal perspective, and the official perspective--and to show how these views merged to work against the goal of preventing the spread of syphilis.

The popularized perspective comes from coverage in the Chicago Tribune, which was apparently the only newspaper in the city to provide regular accounts of the program's efforts. Poirier does not tell readers how she determined that the Tribune was the only newspaper to do this, and it is likely she concentrated on it only because of clippings from the files of the "clap doctor," Ben Reitman, to which she was given access. Reitman, a medical doctor who had made a career of treating patients for sexually transmitted diseases, worked for the Syphilis Control Program and conducted his own unofficial prevention campaign.

The Chicago Tribune led in reporting about syphilis, Poirier wrote, and broke the taboo against newspapers printing the word "syphilis" in 1921. Its daily coverage of the program in 1937-1938 put the newspaper in an awkward position, however, because it was well known that the Tribune did not support the New Deal, of which the control program was a part, or its creator, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Pourier, who teaches literature and medical education at Illinois-Chicago, noted that in 1911 the Tribune sent its male reporters, posing as patients needing treatment for syphilis, to expose what the newspaper called "quack doctors. …

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