Syphilis From 1800 to 1920: Ethical Issues in Healthcare in 19th Century

syphilis ethics

Syphilis and the origin of syphilis is a bacterial infection that is commonly transferred by sexual activity. It is usually transferred by the skin and commonly by the mouth, genitals, or rectum. Early syphilis can be cured by a shot of penicillin, something that was impossible to come to hold off in the 1800s as it was yet to be discovered. When left untreated, it can begin to affect the heart, brain, and other internal organs.

Syphilis History 

Now, let’s dive into the history of syphilis, syphilis cure history, in particular. The disease first broke out as an epidemic in 1495 amongst Charles VIII soldiers in Naples during the Italian wars. Syphilis wasn’t known by this medical name, but instead, it was known as “great pox” and has since developed into the disease we know today.  

From Italy, the disease then began to spread to other European countries such as England, Germany, France, and Poland. 

It’s believed that syphilis was brought to the U.S. by Christopher Columbus in 1493. The first symptoms of the disease included ulcers around the genitals, and this then developed into further symptoms of fever, rashes, pains, and sores across the entirety of the body.    

As we came into 19th Century medicine ethics, medics started questioning whether syphilis and gonorrhea were of the same disease. In 1838, Phillipe Ricord, a French Physician, was able to determine that they were both different diseases. Much research was carried out on syphilis, and by 1893, it was stated that while there was treatment for the disease, there was no syphilis cure. Even today, syphilis is one of the highly debated topics for nursing essays and research papers. A lot of students seek professional nursing essay writing service to get a competent advice on the issues from a skilled writer who has been dealing with the nursing topic for years.  

Ethical Issues in Healthcare in Past

There was an ethical issue in healthcare during this period. Even into the early 20th Century, healthcare was unregulated, and things such as health insurance didn’t exist. There were few hospitals available, and instead, doctors preferred to treat patients in their homes, no matter how sick they were. This lowered the standard of medical ethics as doctors could charge extortionate amounts to visit a patient.  

In the 1920s, as healthcare progressed, it only meant doctors and hospitals were able to charge even more to a patient as there were new and more modern treatments. 

Medical Ethics: Syphilis Treatment 

In the 19th Century, syphilis was similar to the AIDS epidemic of today’s standard. Doctors were able to provide treatment to relieve symptoms, but there was no cure for the disease. Mercury treatments were given in some circumstances; however, this just added to the public health nightmare as patients could come down with mercury poisoning, which could also be fatal.   

Some doctors prescribed a potassium tonic as a treatment, but it caused issues on the skin and gastrointestinal problems. 

Moral principles and medical ethics principles soon came into effect when doctors started to suggest when a person should have sexual intercourse after being diagnosed or whether it would even be possible for them to have intercourse again. It was even suggested that even a slight bit of sexual excitement could cause symptoms to reappear.

Ethical Dilemmas in Healthcare and Human Experimentation 

The ethics in public health began to deteriorate even more when human experimentation began to take place. In 1812, Jean-Francois Hernadez of Toulon inoculated 17 prisoners with gonorrhea to find out whether syphilis would develop from the disease. 

Similar experiments were also carried out by William Wallace, who inoculated healthy people with syphilis, and Joseph-Alexandre Auzias-Turenne, who attempted syphilization, where a patient was injected to see if they would develop a cure through antibodies. 

These were the lowest levels of ethics in medicine, with prisoners being unable to choose whether they wished to be infected. Many doctors would argue that prisoners lose their rights as soon as they become an inmate, and while they are harming those certain individuals, in the grand aspect, they could end up saving many lives if their experimentations were successful. 

Medical Ethical Issues

In 1847, the American Medical Association began to put some ethical principle and codes in place. It was stated that how physicians treated their patients would have to change. Doctors would have to learn to treat patients with tenderness but also steadiness and authority and also treat them with respect and confidence. 

This medical code drew from the works of Thomas Percival from 1803, who was both a physician and philosopher. This code created healthcare ethics to ensure high standards were met when treating a patient and that hospitals across the country had the right code of conduct.

In the mid-1800s, doctors were able to have their medical licences taken away from them, and it was agreed that doctors would have first to undergo a lengthy education to become a physician. 

Syphilis origin goes back to medieval Europe; however, it wasn’t long until it made its way over to the U.S. It was during the syphilis 19th century that the disease began to take effect on the public and caused an epidemic. Before any public health ethics were put into place by the AMA, it meant doctors were able to treat patients for syphilis as they pleased, and with no cure until penicillin was invented in the 20th Century, it meant many people also died from the treatments of syphilis. 

Physicians began to take ethics into their own hands by carrying out human experimentations or prescribing treatments such as mercury which was toxic to a human. 

As medical ethics and ethical principles in healthcare began to change for the better, it meant hospitals and doctors had strict codes they had to follow when treating a patient, allowing them to receive all of the necessary care that they needed.   


American Medical Association. (n.d.). History of the Code. Ama-assn. https://www.ama-


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War II: A Historical Perspective and Reflections on Ethics. Actas Dermo-Sifiliográficas. 

Frith, A. J. (2022, November 15). Syphilis – Its early history and Treatment until Penicillin –



Syphilis – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic. (2021, September 25). Mayo Clinic. 

The U.S. Health Care Non-System, 1908-2008. (2008). AMA Journal of Ethics, 10(5), 324

Tung, T. H., & Organ, C. H. (2000). Ethics in Surgery. Archives of Surgery, 135(1), 10. 

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Syphilis Treatment. Digitalcommons. 


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Marc Gray is the founder of the Odyssey College Prep program. As the director of education, he helps parents and students simplify college planning. His enterprise aims to give parents who are overwhelmed by the endless decisions of college planning a stress-free and comprehensive solution. Marc also helps students discover and enhance their talents through advanced aptitude testing, ensuring that they can develop them into practical skills to use while building their dream careers.
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