Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) have been around for a long time. According to Wikipedia, historical documentation of STIs dates back to at least the Ebers Papyrus around 1550 BC and the Old Testament. The Papyrus is a 110-page Egyptian scroll about herbal knowledge kept in the library at the University of Leipzig in Germany.

Here are some historical facts about STIs in the First World War, famous people who contracted STIs and unusual treatment myths.

STIs and World War I

In July 1916, the Local Government Board issued the Public Health (Venereal Diseases) Regulations. This started the process of providing testing, confidential diagnosis, and treatment for Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

The Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases provided a report in 1916 after 3 years of research. The report found the following information:

  • Syphilis death rates were 22-46 people per million
  • 17% of pregnancies in families with syphilis resulted in miscarriages or still births
  • 30% of children in blind schools were there due to Syphilis
  • 50% of infertility in women was due to Gonorrhoea
  • There was a huge increase in STIs during World War I – 400,00 British or allied troops were hospitalised due to an STI
  • 5% of men in British armies were infected with an STI

This Canadian poster from the First World War is just one of many by the allied governments that illustrate the concern and scale of the problem.  When looking at it, consider that Canadian forces had the highest infection rates for venereal disease in the British expeditionary Force, reaching as high as 28.7%.

What well known historical people had an STI?

Christopher Columbus, Benito Mussolini, Charles VIII of France, Leo Tolstoy, Vladmir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Howard Hughes, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Franz Schubert were all alleged to have had Syphilis or other STIs.

American actor Tallulah Bankhead contracted Gonorrhoea and the gangster John Dillinger was diagnosed with it when he was first sent prison in 1924. Interestingly, Gonorrhoea has been known as “the clap” for almost 700 years, which is probably a reference to the old Le Clapiers district of Paris where prostitutes were housed.

What myths were there about treating STIs?

  • The Ebers Papyrus refers to using sandal oil to soothe a urethral infection that may have been an STD
  • Egyptian treated discharges from the genitals with salves and ointment made with herbs, garlic, and powdered cow horn
  • Early medicine made many unsuccessful efforts to find a cure with a puzzling idea that you could treat your infection by being whacked in the genitals with a book
  • Herpes infections date back to ancient Greece, where Roman medical author, Aulus Cornelius, recommended cauterising Herpes sores with a hot iron
  • The Tudors cure for Syphilis was a 6-week treatment with mercury. Mercury was used because it made patients salivate and sweat and doctors believed it would cleanse a patient´s body
  • Arsenic, sulphur, and mercury were commonly used to treat venereal disease in the 18th and 19th centuries resulting in serious side effects and death by poisoning
  • The advent of penicillin and other antibiotics in the 20th Century led to an effective cure of bacterial STIs.

These days if you discover you have an STI early on then Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea and Syphilis can be treated successfully with antibiotics. HIV infection is no longer life-threatening, but it is still not curable and has to be managed with effective treatment. It is crucial you have early and regular testing, diagnosis, and treatment to safeguard your sexual and long-term health.

How can you check your sexual health?

Better2Know, the leading global private sexual health testing service, can assist you in taking care of your sexual health. If you are worried about your sexual health including STIs or HIV, then speak with one of our highly trained and friendly personal advisors confidentially today by phone or live chat.

We offer many individual STI tests including a Syphilis Test, Gonorrhoea Test and Chlamydia Test and HIV tests. Better2Know provides comprehensive STI Screens which are created by medical experts such as our Peace of Mind Screen which tests for Chlamydia, Syphilis and Gonorrhoea. Our Early Platinum Screen detects the presence of eleven infections as early as 14 days since any incident of concern.

Our well-trained team is here to help you 24 hours a day, seven days a week to obtain peace of mind about your health. We can arrange discreet testing at a clinic near you, with a private nurse visit, or you can order a convenient home test kit.


[1] British Association for Sexual Health and HIV: Sexual Health – What Happened 100 Years Ago Was Remarkable

[2] 16 Historical Figures Who Suffered from STDs

[3] Bizarre STD Treatments from History

[4] Image: Active History Canada

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