The 1930s Public Health Campaign against Syphilis & Gonorrhea

Our experience of the pandemic has led us to explore other health crises in U.S. history, such as the WWI era flu epidemic and the 1980s HIV-AIDS crisis, as we search for “lessons” and parallels. How did the government respond? How did individuals and communities respond? Can we do better today?

Dr. Erin Wuebker has been teaching for a decade at the City University of New York but now lives here in the Twin Cities. She has dug deeply into the experience of venereal disease in the 1930s, when popular attitudes about venereal disease and public health approaches to its control seemed to change in the United States. Syphilis and gonorrhea became topics that people commonly encountered in their everyday life—through newspapers, magazines, radio programs and Hollywood films; during educational programs at work and school; and in a multitude of public spaces through posters, exhibitions, testing drives. The Surgeon General made “stamping out” syphilis his pet project starting in 1936. By the late 1930s, federal, state, and local governments had appropriated millions of dollars for VD testing and treatment programs that provided free and low-cost care across the nation.

This talk will look at the main themes, messages, and imagery used in this campaign against venereal disease to explore public health strategies for gaining widespread support and participation in efforts to promote health. Why in the midst of the Great Depression did the government and the public feel spending millions of dollars on “stamping out” VD was a good idea? How did advocates for a VD control “sell” it to others? Did people’s attitudes on sexually transmitted infections really change? And how did these new narratives impact varied communities, such as Black Americans, workers, and women. Did these efforts really help people? Or, did they simply reinforce existing racial and gender stereotypes and health inequities?

We hope that Dr. Wuebker’s presentation will lead to a conversation about what we can learn as we enter the third year of the COVID pandemic.


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