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Syphilis: An Enlightenment Controversy analysed through Documents and Anatomical Specimens

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  • Full or part time
    Prof S Cohn
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

The Leverhulme Trust: "Collections" Scholarships2016/17

The successful candidate should have some experience in biology lab work as well as show interest in medical humanities and history.

Candidates interested in applying for funded PhD study on this project are encouraged to make informal contact with the Supervisor(s) in the first instance.

This fully funded PhD studentship provides an opportunity to research two diverse collections held at the University of Glasgow: (1) our rich Special Collection at the University Library, which contains a remarkable series of medical tracts, letters, and consilia on venereal disease from incunabula at the end of the fifteenth century to works into the nineteenth century; and (2) the syphilitic specimens left by William Hunter (1713-83) to the University, now preserved at its Hunterian Museum. At the end of the eighteenth century, Scotland was the arena of the central debate on venereal disease: were syphilis and gonorrhoea different clinical manifestations of the same disease or were they two separate diseases? This was more than an academic question. It concerned the treatment of hundreds of patients in Scotland alone. The two chief protagonists were Drs John Hunter (1728-93, brother of William Hunter) and Benjamin Bell (from Dumfriesshire, who practised in Edinburgh, 1746-1806). Hunter upheld the orthodox view that gonorrhoea and syphilis were the same and therefore should be treated alike, with the same dangerous, painful, and disfiguring course of mercury. Bell dissented, and from case histories of patients and anecdotal histories from the South Sea Islands, Canada, the Highlands of Scotland, Dumfriesshire, and Galloway he argued strenuously that the two were separate diseases to be treated separately. Subjecting patients with the symptoms of gonorrhoea to the horrible mercury treatment not only led to unnecessary suffering, it cost lives. In A Treatise on Gonorrhoea Virulenta and Lues Venerea, (Edinburgh, 1793, 2nd ed.,1797), Bell presented his evidence for determining that the two diseases were separate but also a methodology for distinguishing diseases before ‘the laboratory revolution’ of the second half of the nineteenth century. He relied on more than clinical evidence. His principal argument was ethnographical. Unlike large cities such as London and Edinburgh, filled with both diseases and where the same patients could manifest the signs and symptoms of both, in isolated villages, Bell argued, the inhabitants with venereal disease either were afflicted with one or the other and from his historical enquiries the inhabitants had known only gonorrhoea or syphilis. In hindsight, Bell, of course, won the argument. But in his time Hunter’s view prevailed until experiments by Philippe Ricord (1800-89) at Paris in 1836.

Surprisingly, no modern research has been devoted to the Bell-Hunter controversy or to their methods for distinguishing diseases before the laboratory revolution. However, recent breakthroughs in sequencing technologies indicate that studying historic DNA with shotgun metagenomic approaches without target-specific capture or amplification has great potential for elucidation of the emergence, evolution and spread of microbial pathogens. With the sequencing of ancient DNA from eighteenth-century syphilis specimens held at the Hunterian and in other collections at the Royal Infirmary, Glasgow, the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, and those of John Hunter’s collection at the Museum of the College of Surgeons, London, the student will be able to interrogate the accuracy of these eighteenth-century disease classifications and to determine (1) to what extent the pathogen may have mutated since the eighteenth century and (2) evaluate the diagnoses of ‘lues venerea’: what diseases may have been included in their broad classifications. Probably Bell also included a variety of diseases under his syphilis umbrella. For instance, for Dumfriesshire and Galloway, commoners and physicians alike considered ‘Sivvens or Sibbens’ a particularly virulent form of syphilis, which Bell argued resembled the ‘Great Pox’ or ‘French Disease’ in Europe during its first twenty years before it became ‘domesticated’. But Bell’s description of the clinical aspects of the disease and argument that it could be ‘communicated by eating and drinking out of the same vessel, or drying with the same cloth’ suggests that this supposed ‘variant’ of syphilis may instead have been a virulent form of smallpox, called ‘Black smallpox’ in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century North America.

Candidates wishing to submit an application should prepare and submit the following documentation:

. The application form which includes a personal statement in which you should detail the particular attributes and/or achievements which make you a suitable candidate to undertake the proposed project
Your CV
. Your degree transcripts
. Two references in support of your application

The closing date for receipt of complete applications is Friday, 25 March 2016. Applications should be emailed to Adeline Callander, Graduate School Administrator ([Email Address Removed]).

Funding Notes

Doctoral scholarship providing maintenance (c. £14,100 in session 2016-17) and fees (Home/EU rate only) at Research Council rates

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