What’s on : Lectures

100 years of sex, syphilis and psychiatry in Scotland

23 Oct 2012
Start time
7:30 PM
Tempest Anderson Hall
Dr Gayle Davis
100 years of sex, syphilis and psychiatry in Scotland

Event Information

100 years of sex, syphilis and psychiatry in Scotland

A lecture by Gayle Davis M.A.(Hons), M.Phil., Ph.D.

Against a background of potent fears surrounding the moral and physical ‘degeneration’ of nineteenth and early-twentieth-century society, and significant change within the discipline of psychiatry, this lecture will explore a critical period in the developing relationship between syphilis and insanity. General paralysis of the insane (GPI) was one of the most devastating diseases observed in British psychiatry during the century after 1840, in terms of the high number and type of patients diagnosed, the severity of its symptoms and, above all, its utterly hopeless prognosis. The paper will consider each of these elements of the disease, exploring the disease category from a variety of perspectives: social, moral, medical and pathological.

Dr Davis is a Wellcome Trust lecturer at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh.
Her research interest is the social history of medicine over the last two centuries, particularly the histories of psychiatry and madness, sexuality, reproductive health, and death.


Sex Syphilis & Psychiatry from Yorkshire Philosophical Society on Vimeo.




Gayle Davis is the author of “The Cruel Madness of Love: Sex, Syphilis and Psychiatry in Scotland, 1880–1930

Follow the links to Amazon for further details on this book:

Report by John Staples

Dr Davis had examined the medical records of 911 patients suffering from general paralysis of the insane in a number of psychiatric hospitals in Scotland between the late 19th and the early 20th century. It was regarded purely as a psychiatric illness though the unrecognised cause was tertiary syphilis for which at the time there was no cure. Men from all classes were sufferers, usually in their mid-forties. Symptoms included delusions of grandeur and extravagant and inappropriate behaviour.
Various remedies were tried, including trepanning, the administration of mercury, surgery to the brain, E.C.T.  and malaria (high fever being the therapeutic agent) were all applied. The malarial therapy earned Dr Wagner-Jauregg the Nobel Prize but even in those days it was not without controversy and there were resignations in protest at the award. None of these remedies worked on tertiary syphilis and it was only the discovery of penicillin that brought relief from this scourge. Worryingly the incidence of syphilis is on the increase.