March 4, 2021

War, literature and venereal diseases | Science


During World War II, in the years prior to the use of penicillin, venereal diseases waged their own war without distinction of uniforms and nations. The most common were syphilis and gonorrhea. The graphic propaganda of the time gave a good account of this.

There are thousands of stories about it, such as the Czech nurse who ended the lives of a number of Nazi soldiers, transmitting sexually transmitted diseases of which she herself had been victim after successive rapes by German soldiers. Another story, in this fictitious case, is the one that the American writer tells us John Irving in his famous novel titled The world according to Garp.

Garp's mother is a nurse who treats wounded soldiers in an army hospital. It also applies "whitening treatments" based on sulfonamides and arsenic. With regard to this last treatment, the nurse considers that "it was the end to which sex could lead; introduce arsenic in human chemistry with the intention of purifying chemistry. " The closest thing to putting out a fire with more fire.

Gonorrhea was treated with sulfatiazole, an organic compound that acts as a fast-acting antibiotic. To apply it, huge amounts of water were required. The procedure was simple and this is where John Irving shows his mastery at the time of telling us in detail how the dissolution reached the "surprised" urethra of the patient who, at those times, required special care. He felt as if his genitals were being skinned. "An appropriate punishment for a lover," Nurse Jenny Fields, mother of Gurp and character Dickensian-style, adds with perfidy.

Now, it should be noted that the term 'venereal disease' is a literary term of mythological origin. It alludes to Venus, Roman goddess of love, being all that emanates from Venus. Therefore, in the dermatological specialty there is a branch that receives a name as significant as literary. We refer to venereology, which is responsible for the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

But not only in literature can we find samples of the diseases that arise from the tributes to Venus, but we can also find them in the writers themselves. Without moving from our territory, Bécquer, poet of dissolute life, purges were treated in the mid-nineteenth century in the office of Dr. Francisco Esteban, where he would meet his daughter, named Casta and with whom he later married.

All in all, the venereal poet in his own right was called Charles Baudelaire, who became ill with syphilis brought by the desire of the flesh to La Louchette (La Bizca), a woman who infected him with the evil that would condition his work. Syphilis produced aphasia, a language disorder due to brain damage and also produced a partial paralysis that signaled him the road to death, occurred in Paris on August 31, 1867. The syphilis of Baudelaire would be reflected in his poetry in the same way that the sun is reflected in the snow, symbol that the poet used in his poem entitled The call from nothing to reflect the passage of time: And so, incessantly, Time devours me, as snow devours inert bodies.

Technicians refining penicillin in a laboratory in the United Kingdom in 1943.


Technicians refining penicillin in a laboratory in the United Kingdom in 1943.

The infections caused by the call of Venus had a bad fix until, in the early 40's of the last century, patients began to benefit from the treatment of a powerful antibiotic obtained from the fungus Penicillium Notatum and whose discovery is attributed to Alexander Fleming, obviating the work of other scientists such as Professor Howard Florey who, together with the chemist Ernst Chain and the biologist Norman Heatley, he managed to accelerate the process to show that the discovery worked. But most important of all, in the end, penicillin won the war on bacteria.

The stone ax It's a section where Montero Glez, with a desire for prose, exercises its particular siege on scientific reality to show that science and art are complementary forms of knowledge.

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