WNYC: Great Pox
WNYC HOLDS A SOCIAL HYGIENE FORUM HOUR
Including a Dramatic History of Syphilis and a Panel Discussion of
Modern Problems and Recent Events
Dramatic presentations in public health education on the radio are
not new, and panel discussions have long been regarded as a splendid
way of presenting varying points of view in an animated manner
which holds audience attention for longer periods than could a solitary
speaker. It is believed, however, that these two effective publicity
tools were combined for the first time in social hygiene education when
the American Social Hygiene Association, at the invitation of the
New York City Municipal Radio Station, occupied WNYC's regular
Forum Hour on Sunday, March 13, from 11 a.m. to 12 noon. It is
thought, also, that this hour program sets a record for length of radio
time consecutively devoted to social hygiene.
For the benefit of readers who may wish to utilize this form of pro-
gram, either for radio or directly to audiences, the JOURNAL by per-
mission of the author and Station WNYC publishes the drama sketch
and announcer's statements which filled the first fifteen minutes of
the hour, with notes on the panel discussion.
STATION ANNOUNCER: Nineteen thirty-eight! In Spain war still
goes on! In South America dictatorships are set up! Conflict rages
in the Far East! In the United States, hundreds of thousands more
apply for relief! All over the world, the armament race is on! What
really goes on behind the scenes? What is going on in our country?
For instance, what legislation is passed in Albany, in New York City,
in Washington, and why?
In the belief that our radio audience has an intense interest in the
conduct of the affairs of the nation and the world, the City of New
York presents today the third in a new series of Forum discussions,
on the topic The War on Syphilis!
by DOROTHY DAVIDS
Forum Director, Station WNYC
Music--Up, hold, fade to--
NARRATOR: It is the year 1493. Spain, under Isabella, has pro-
gressed beyond the fondest hopes of the Spaniards. The Moors have
been driven out of Granada, and the dreamer, Christopher Columbus,
has proved himself a brilliant navigator and explorer. All this glory
reflects to Spain. New lands have been found--the world has been
further opened up to colonization and commerce--and Spain is
acknowledged leader among the nations. Singing and dancing, week-
long fiestas--and complete joy mark the return of Christopher Colum-
bus from the new world. But underneath this festivity and rejoicing
there is an undercurrent of fear--a scarce-felt but insistent appre-
hension. For with Columbus on his voyage back to Spain came an
unwanted gift from the new world to the old. Some of his sailors
had contracted in Haiti a strange disease--a disease unknown to the
old world. In a home near the center of Spain's capital, a sailor lies
very ill. His mother has called in a physician--
Music--Up, hold, fade to--
MOTHER: Can you not help the poor boy at all, sir?
DOCTOR: This is an ailment I know nothing of, Senora.
SAILOR: This ache in my bones--this eruption over my whole body
is there no help for it?
MOTHER: But surely, you, with your great wisdom, can help my
DOCTOR: In the last week I have seen many like your son. They
are all suffering from what appears to be the same disease--but we
do not know what it is--(sadly) nor what to do about it.
MOTHER: Is it for this they call you great? Is it for this they
call you wise? You can tell us, when we need you most--"I do not
DOCTOR: You are right. We say that we have a work to do here
--to cure--to heal the sick--and suddenly we find ourselves helpless.
SAILOR: There were three of us who were ill on the Santa Maria.
DOCTOR: And now there are many more of you. I am not certain
--but I have heard of almost a hundred cases of this strange disease.
SAILOR (pitifully): I beg you, give me something for this afflic-
tion! In the name of God--help me!
DOCTOR: With all my heart, I want to help you--but I am help-
less--just as you are. It will take more than a willingness to help
to stay the course of this malady. It will take a great and extensive
knowledge, which we do not yet have.
MOTHER: But when? We need this knowledge now.
DOCTOR: Perhaps not in time for your son, Senora--nor even in
time for me to see its benefits--but it will arrive--the time of this
knowledge--for the world will have it so!
Music--Up, hold, fade to--
NARRATOR: 1495! Charles the VIIIth of France, drunk with
dreams of conquest, sends into Italy a great army of men. He him-
self leads the invading forces. Most of them are French but there
are a few Spanish. (Slow) Some of these Spaniards have been in the
West Indies with Columbus. King Charles and his army capture
Naples in February, and prepare for permanent occupation. He
plans to leave some forces in Naples and lead the rest of his army
through Europe in a grand march of conquest. One evening, late
in March two captains and a general ask an immediate audience
ATTENDANT: What is it you wish, gentlemen? The King is
tired. He does not wish to be disturbed.
GENERAL: May it please his Majesty, we have grave news. He
must hear it at once.
CAPTAIN: I beg of you, ask him to see us. It is a matter of great
concern to him.
ATTENDANT: By your faces, gentlemen, I can tell that you do
not speak idly. I will conduct you to the King.
CHARLES: How dare you interrupt me thus rudely?
GENERAL: Your Majesty--we bring you news important--and
CAPTAIN: The soldiers, sir--under my command--
CHARLES: Do not speak until you are spoken to, Captain.
GENERAL: Your Majesty will forgive me, but this is not the time
for courtesy and manners
CHARLES (angrily): Since when have I allowed one in command
under me to tell when manners are appropriate?
GENERAL : Your Majesty--listen to us, I beg of you. The soldiers
are attacked by violent illness.
CHARLES: My soldiers? Why, they are the best in France. They
are my own best troops.
GENERAL: Yes, sire, and they have shown themselves to be brave
soldiers indeed--but this is something else--some new, and frighten-
CHARLES: What is it? When did it strike? Is it a plague?
CAPTAIN: I was the first to notice it, your majesty. Some of my
troops were seized with this disease a few weeks ago--now many
others are also afflicted.
GENERAL: It is a plague, your majesty. That is why we come to
you. The soldiers are dying like rats.
CAPTAIN: Those who do not have the disease fear it mightily.
GENERAL: It has caused a breakdown in spirit, your majesty, that
is most alarming. I fear--
CHARLES: Yes, go on! You fear?
GENERAL: I fear that we shall not be able to proceed with our
CHARLES: After two years' preparation? After the successful
capture of Naples? Are you insane?
GENERAL: Not insane, your majesty, no. To that I do not plead
guilty. But fully aware, sire, that without troops who are in health,
we can accomplish no more.
CHARLES: What is this illness?
CAPTAIN: We do not know, your majesty.
CHARLES: Does no one know?
GENERAL: No one, sire. We are helpless.
CHARLES: Victory--so near--victory for which I have planned
so carefully--and then a plague strikes. Is there nothing anyone
can do to stop it? (shouting).
GENERAL (sadly): Nothing, sire. We have lost. To a strange,
Music: Up, hold, fade to--
NARRATOR: The scourge brought back from the West Indies
spread rapidly through Europe. In 1497, Paris authorities took a
forward step. They issued orders for isolation of all cases of this
strange disease--but still no one knew what it was, nor how to treat
it. Until 1530, the disease did not even have a name. Each country
blamed the epidemic on another--and named it accordingly. To
the Turks, it was the disease of the Christians; to the English, it
was the French pox; and to the Italians, it was the Spanish disease.
But in 1530, the disease finally acquired a name, which it carries
In that year, Fracastorius, the physician and poet of Padua, wrote
a poem about the disease. The hero of the poem, Syphilus, a swine-
herd, was represented as the first man to contract the disease.
Fracastorius, in his poem, said
FRACASTORIUS: "What causes after so many years, brought forth
for us this unaccustomed disease? Was it borne by the Western sea,
and so came to our world at the time when a chosen band set sail
from the shores of Spain, and dared to attack the foam and the
unknown waters of the wandering ocean--and search out lands
lying in a new world? For there, they say, that sickness held sway
with everlasting ruin through all the cities, and wandered hither and
thither by endless fault of Heaven, sparing but few."
(Music under foregoing)
Music--Up, hold, fade to--
NARRATOR: Then for three hundred years, there was little progress.
The disease had a name--it was now called syphilis. But it had
no positive cure and there was no accurate body of information
concerning it. But in 1868!!
FIRST VOICE: Louis Pasteur, famous French scientist discovers
that bacteria cause many diseases!
NARRATOR: Then in 1903--only 35 years ago, the real war on
syphilis begins. Emile Roux and Elie Metchnikoff start their cam-
paign. Both had won prize money for scientific research, and both
had decided to use it all in a study of syphilis and its transmission.
They bought apes, and experimented on them endlessly; from a
syphilitic man, they inoculated the first ape--and the ape developed
Then for more than four years they toiled, looking for the slender
microbe which causes the dread disease. Then one day, Metchinkoff,
began a strange experiment. While Emile Roux looked on--
METCHNIKOFF: Emile, hold this chimpanzee! There--now hang
on to him. This time I am going to inject the virus into the ear of
the poor beast--and tomorrow--
ROUX: Tomorrow? What then?
Music: Up, hold, fade--
METCHNIKOFF: Where is the chimpanzee we used for our experi-
ment yesterday? This is the one? Now watch, Emile. This is
the ear--I am going to cut it off--
Music: Up, hold, fade--
NARRATOR: Two months later, inspecting the one-eared chimpan-
zee, Metchnikoff cries out in happiness.
METCHNIKOFF: He is perfectly healthy! That means that the
germ lingers for hours at the spot where it gets into the body. Now
we have something to go on. Maybe we will be able to kill this
disease in a human before it ever spreads!
NARRATOR: Then Metchnikoff performed another helpful experi-
ment. He discovered that calomel ointment can prevent syphilis
when promptly and properly applied. And the war on syphilis
went on! 1905!!!
FIRST VOICE: Fritz Schaudinn and Erich Hoffmann isolate, at
last, the tiny spiral organism that causes syphilis. They name it
NARRATOR: And now science begins to wage a winning battle.
Scientists know what causes the disease of syphilis. They can look
at it under the microscope. Real war begins!
SECOND VOICE: Then in 1910--Paul Ehrlich, German scientist,
experimenting with an arsenic compound, finds a new treatment and
cure for syphilis. For three years, he and his whole staff had
been experimenting with this compound, changing it this way and
that. Six hundred and five different combinations they tried and
finally, the next one--six hundred and six--is perfected. It was safe
--it worked. And when the scientific congress was held at Koenigs-
berg that year--Paul Ehrlich told them of 606.
ERLICH: I am going to tell you, gentlemen, of miracles. I will
tell you of a woman whom I have cured of syphilis. This woman
has received a new drug directly into her blood stream. Soon the
germ of syphilis disappeared from her skin. The ache and fever
and weakness vanished. Now, a year later, she appears to be well.
Not one but many have been treated and all--all have been similarly
benefited. God has at last given mankind the sterilisans magna
the great sterilizer against syphilis.
Music: Up, hold, fade to--
NARRATOR: Today--in the year 1938, almost four hundred and
fifty years after the sailors on Christopher Columbus's three tiny
boats brought this crippling, enfeebling, death-dealing disease back
with them to the old world from the new--we are engaged in a fight
to the finish with the scourge of syphilis. We are fighting it not
only in the old world, but here in the new. The disease has practically
encircled the world. It came back to this hemisphere by way of
The American Social Hygiene Association tells us that six and a
half million people in the United States have the disease, perhaps
more. Of this number about one-tenth of those infected are under
medical care. Listen closely to the discussion which follows, and
learn about a most important part of this national and international
campaign. Help do your part by aiding those organizations which
are trying to shed light on this problem, in order to solve it ex-
pediently and scientifically. Help rid the world of syphilis!!
Music: Up, hold, fade to-- -- -- --station identification. . .
In planning the three-quarter hour panel discussion which followed
the drama, WNYC invited persons with fairly divergent experiences
in social hygiene to present their messages and to join in extem-
poraneous exchange of ideas. Dr. Walter Clarke, Executive
Director of the Association, served as chairman of the panel. Par-
ticipating were Dr. M. F. Haraldson, Surgeon of the United States
Public Health Service in the Metropolitan Area, Dr. Theodore
Rosenthal, Director of the New York City Bureau of Social Hygiene,
Dr. Emily Barringer, Director of Gynecology, Kingston Avenue
Hospital, Brooklyn, and Edward C. Kienle, Public Information
Assistant of the Association.
At the time of the broadcast, two significant bills were under
consideration by the New York State legislature. Dr. Clarke, after
complimenting the producers and performers of the dramatic sketch,
set the scene for the discussion by briefly outlining the problems of
syphilis which these bills were intended to help solve. The Twomey-
Newell bill providing for compulsory tests for syphilis in pregnancy,
was described by Dr. Haraldson. Dr. Rosenthal 's talk mentioned
the main provisions of the Desmond-Breitbart bill, which provides
for examination of all applicants for marriage licenses in the State.
[Both bills were passed shortly after this broadcast.]
[Commenting on the effectiveness of the sketch, Dr. Clarke called
it "an impressive description of some of the high points of the
generally accepted story of the arrival of syphilis in Europe,"
adding "It is only correct to say that there are those who do not
accept this account of syphilis, but who believe instead of its
having arrived from the West Indies of this country, it was long,
long before present in Europe. However, it is perfectly true that
the vast majority of authorities accept this 'Columbian' theory
of the origin of syphilis in the white race."]
A contemporary news story had quoted a woman as saying that
the provisions of the Twomey-Newell bill were a trespass on personal
liberty. Dr. Barringer, discussing this statement, sought to prove
that any law estimated to save 13,000 infants annually from death
or disease caused by congenital syphilis is in the interest of the public
good, and that the charge that personal liberty would be assailed is
without foundation. Mr. Kienle described the contribution of the
various news dissemination agencies,--newspapers, motion pictures,
radio--to the syphilis campaign generally, and more specifically to
the current campaign for passage of these two bills.
Following these talks, the remaining twenty minutes of the pro-
gram were devoted to a free exchange of questions and answers among
the panel members. Since this part of the program was not from
prepared scripts, it partook of a natural animation that of free and
casual conversation which might result from a group entirely with-
On the whole, the combination of a brief drama with a panel
discussion appears to be one of the best methods of employing radio
in social hygiene education which has yet evolved. It is hoped that
more use will be made of this technique in the future. A consider-
able share of credit for the success of this broadcast belongs to Miss
Dorothy Davids, Forum Director WNYC, who studied the abundant
historical data on syphilis and wrote the twelve-minute dramatic
presentation. All who heard this sketch over the air were generous
in their praise of its effectiveness and vivid characterization.
Originally broadcast 13 March 1938
Source: Journal of Social Hygiene, March 1938,
Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 153-159