Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Syphilis and the Family Tree

Ruf and I watched a fascinating programme recently. It was the Martin Freeman episode from the series 'Who do you think you are', where they help celebrities to trace their family trees.

The first forty minutes of the hour-long programme were interesting, following his grandfather, Leonard's, death just prior to the evacuation of Dunkirk and the revelation that his great grandfather, Richard, was born blind and fathered Leonard late in life, but it was after that when things became totally captivating.

Finding evidence that showed Richard as a young man at work as a respected organist in a church in Worthing, Martin learned that Richard had fathered more than six live children with one wife before marrying again after her death and fathering about six more. He then left his position under mysterious circumstances and surfaced again in Hull, where he married a third woman, who, like him, was also blind. Together they had another six children (including his grandfather, Leonard) before Richard died at the age of about 70. His wife, Ada, went on to marry again twice more and finally left this mortal coil in her nineties.

It was amazing enough to imagine two blind people bringing up six children on their own but then Martin started to investigate further and discovered that they had actually produced 12 live children, only to have six of them die very young.

Visiting a paediatrician at Great Ormond Street with four of their death certificates, they deciphered the writing and realised that all four had been born and died within a period of about 6-8 years with the main cause of death being 'failure to thrive'. At that time, the most common reason for this was congenital syphilis, an illness which can also cause blindness, either at birth or in the first few years due to the glazing over of the cornea.

It transpired that Ada had not been born blind, but had lost her sight at the age of three and the death certificate of her older brother showed that he had died a month before she was conceived of 'constitutional syphilis' at the age of just three months. This meant that he presented with symptoms that were undeniable and could not be listed as mere 'failure to thrive', confirming that the most likely cause of Ada's becoming blind as a small child was that same illness.

Now, I don't know about you guys but I always thought that, if not caught early enough or if left untreated, syphilis was fatal, going through varying symptoms including a horrible facial rash which eventually caused your nose to fall off, before you went gaga. It would appear that my sexual education is somewhat lacking.

The consensus of the experts was that Ada had been born with congenital syphilis (ie caught from her mother and transmitted during the pregnancy) and recovered without treatment because it is possible in certain cases for the disease to 'work its way out of the system' over a period of four to six years. However, having had the disease once does not mean that you are then immune. She had, then, been re-infected by her husband, Richard, passing it on to her own foeti in utero. She then recovered a second time and went on to have more children who were unaffected by the disease. Apparently, if a woman who has born several healthy children suddenly goes through a period of 6-8 years where she has a series of miscarriages, still births or neo-natal deaths, then syphilis is the most likely cause.

Kassovitz's Law of 1875 dictates that 'the spontaneous gradual diminution in intensity of syphilitic transmission'. So a number of births will be miscarriages, then stillbirths, then unhealthy children who die quickly, unhealthy children who survive and then back to healthy children again.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease which first appeared in the 1490s in Southern Europe and rapidly spread across the continent, where it was also known as the French Disease. Due to its extreme contagiousness and hideous symptoms, it was as feared as the Plague.

Many have said that Henry VIII suffered from it and this was evidenced by the ulcer on his leg and his inability to father healthy children. However, this is not totally born out by the evidence - based on Kassovitz's Law. Catherine of Aragon was pregnant six times. She gave birth to four boys who lived for a few months or were stillbirths. Then she had a healthy daughter, the woman who became Bloody Mary, followed by another daughter who died after a few weeks. In that time, Henry also fathered the illegitimate Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, who went on to die at the age of 17. Anne Boleyn's first child was Elizabeth, followed by two miscarriages. Jane Seymour's first and only pregnancy produced Edward VI, who, although not the most robust of children, did survive until he was 16.

It was not until 1928 and the arrival of penicillin that a cure was found.

In the late 1890s/early 20th century, syphilis was very prevalent and extremely contagious. Most people passed it on without even knowing that they had it. Whether the disease or the method of its contraction had anything to do with Richard's sudden departure from his respectable job and lifestyle in Worthing, we will never know, but it certainly makes for some salacious conjecture.

Statistics show that one in ten people in Britain had the disease. So, as the sexual health expert said: 'of all the people currently engaged in genealogy searches, at least 10% have a sporting chance of finding syphilis in their family tree'.

It's certainly a very sobering thought.


Gorilla Bananas said...

Well Winston Churchill had it in his family tree, so they're in good company.

Semele said...

It was a fascinating programme.

One thing is that the symptoms of the disease have mutated over the centuries, so I think these days the facial disfigurement is not so common. One of the worst things is that the primary symptom is a genital sore that can easily be missed, and then the treponemes can lie dormant in your system, sometimes for decades, until you get the secondary symptoms like joint pains.

Robert Mugabe is often rumoured to have tertiary syphilis...

Thank you Penicillium fungi!

Joanna Cake said...

Mr B - I didn't know about Winston's family, although I am not surprised. I recall watching Lee Remick as Jenny, Lady Randolph Churchill and remember it was all a bit raunchy :)

Semele - I'm glad you felt similarly about the programme. I am beginning to become quite hooked by the series.

I didnt realise there was a genital sore involved but it sounds as if this is a disease that could bite us all on the bum in the future if we dont take proper precautions.

Jackie Adshead said...

How interesting, I didn't know about any of that! Thankyou for educating me on such a fascinating subject!!! :)

Boxer said...

"better living through medicine".

Helga Hansen said...

I also watched that episode, and was shocked (and fascinated) by all the figures being quoted about syphilis... and that last 10% of all people will have this disease in their family history!

*That* was the most "shocking" detail of all! I am also convinced that STDs are not a thing of the past - there are still far too many people taking unnecessary risks...

aka k said...

my hometown is famous for geriatrics, bonkers birdmen and now blind syphilitic organists! wonderful :)

nitebyrd said...

How fascinating! I wonder how many of our "Puritanical" ancestors over here brought the disease with them.

It also makes me curious as to the many miscarriages and stillbirths my grandmother had in Scotland.

Really interesting post, Cake. Thanks!

Joanna Cake said...

Jackie - This series of Who...? has been tagged as the best so far and certainly I have found the stories quite gripping. All are still available on bbc iplayer. Davina McCall and Kim Cattrall were most unexpected, but they were all well worth watching.

Boxer - Indeed. Im a great one for homeopathy, but there is no doubt that we all owe huge debts to our scientists.

Helga - It really is quite scary when you hear some young people talking about contraception rather than disease prevention.

aka a - Hello, I just had a good giggle over my porridge about that thought.

nitebyrd - Of course, the European settlers from the various famines and economic downturns will have brought the disease out to America and Australia. The key seemed to be that if you had one or two healthy children and then a gap of 6-8 years where there were stillbirths, miscarriages or neonatal deaths before a resumption of healthy children, then syphilis was the most likely explanation.

Joanna Cake said...

aka k - Sorry, typo! Im using a laptop and Im not very good, hence the reason that I just put it into hibernate midway through typing this comment!