A Brief History
On January 31, 1747, the London Lock Hospital opened as the first clinic specifically for the treatment of venereal diseases!
Back in the days when science had not yet discovered the microscopic causes of disease, Europeans thought mainly of syphilis when addressing the subject of venereal disease. Although it is not proven beyond a doubt, many scientists think that syphilis was unknown in Europe until infected sailors among the crews of Christopher Columbus’s ships returned from their first voyage to the New World, having contracted the disease after having sex with Native Americans. The first documented widespread outbreak of syphilis was in Italy around 1494 or 1495 and was spread to France by soldiers returning from battle in Italy. The rest, as historians say, is history!
Syphilis became a major health concern in Europe, including Britain, and in the early years, was a much more deadly disease than it is today. Europeans had no immunity built up, and deaths from syphilis were common and horrible, with victims exhibiting sores over their entire body, arthritic-like symptoms and madness before death.
It soon became apparent that prostitution was responsible for much of the spread of the disease, and prostitutes became reviled by many, with laws eventually passed around the world forbidding “the oldest profession.” For example, in 1546, King Henry VIII of England and Ireland (r. 1509-1547) issued a royal proclamation outlawing brothels in England and ending toleration of prostitutes. Nevertheless, both prostitutes and venereal disease continued to be present in England in the 17th and 18th centuries.
And so just a few years before a new ban on brothel-keeping was included in Britain’s Disorderly Houses Act of 1751, the London Lock Hospital was founded as a voluntary hospital for venereal diseases. The Lock Hospital eventually evolved into a women’s obstetrics and gynecological clinic before closing in 1952. Prior to the development of Salvarsan in 1910 and the introduction of penicillin in 1943 as treatments for venereal disease, there were no real cures, so until the 20th century, only the symptoms could be addressed.
From the 1490s through the present, the specter of syphilis has haunted humanity to such an extent that it has even entered popular culture. An interesting song known as “The Lock Hospital Song” is about the victims of syphilis.
A well known variant is “St. James Hospital,” a tune Americans are familiar with as “The Streets of Laredo!”
Question for students (and subscribers): Should prostitution be legal or illegal and why? Also, do you have a favorite version of “The Streets of Laredo”? If so, please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Williams, D.I. The London Lock: A Charitable Hospital for Venereal Disease, 1746-1952. Royal Society of Medicine Press Ltd, 1995.
The featured image in this article, an old print of the London Lock Hospital, Hyde Park Corner, 1831, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924. See this page for further explanation.
You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube: