Three Doctors Discuss Syphilis
Prepared especially for use in connection with the Second National
Social Hygiene Day, February 2, 1938, but intended for general use
as well. About 200 radio stations broadcast this electrical
transcription and the companion dialogue Doctor Snow Visits Anytown
recorded on the reverse side of the same phonograph disc. The record
may be run on any machine which operates at 33 revolutions per minute.
To secure these talks address the American Social Hygiene Association
at 50 West 50 Street. Price $3.00 postpaid.
... The electrical transcriptions, Dr. Snow Visits Anytown and Three
Doctors Discuss Syphilis, marked a new step in the dramatic
interpretation of the problems inherent in syphilis and gonorrhea
and employed up-to-the-minute techniques in script and casting.
Obviously, in offerings of this kind, the professional actor is
better suited to the job than would be the health authorities whose
words they spoke. In both transcriptions, the characters of
physicians and others were played by actors. The scripts, however,
were carefully read and approved by the medical authorities before
being released for recording. ...
THREE DOCTORS DISCUSS SYPHILIS
A Radio Conversation
Recorded by the American Social Hygiene Association
ANNOUNCER: We are on the mezzanine of the Grand Hotel in
Pioneer City. The American Social Hygiene Association is holding
a conference here, and groups of doctors, health officials and others
interested in the public welfare are moving about, greeting old
friends, making new acquaintances and discussing various problems
raised in the session just concluded. Coming out of the assembly
room we see GENERAL JOHN J. PERSHING, Chairman of the Associa-
tion's Anti-Syphilis Committee. With him are the President of the
Association, DR. BAY LYMAN WILBUR of Leland Stanford University,
and DR. THOMAS PARRAN, Surgeon-General of the United States Pub-
lic Health Service. Men and women are swarming forward to greet
these distinguished leaders of the nation-wide drive against syphilis,
which Dr. Parran has ear-marked as "the next great plague to go."
But over there in a corner are three men so absorbed in their own con-
versation that they are completely oblivious to the movement of the
crowds about them. Let's move over in their direction
DR. WHITEHEAD: As a cause of death, it ranks with cancer, tuber-
culosis and pneumonia. We're doing everything in our power to
cope with them. But when it comes to syphilis . . .
DR. NUGENT: Until recently people didn't want to talk about it--
they didn't even want to think about it. It was something disgrace-
ful that happens to other people--not to themselves or their friends.
DR. YOUNG: And yet in my practice I see on the average two cases
a week, among women, too--women in comfortable circumstances.
Some of them don't even know there is such a disease as syphilis.
Some of them have heard of it in a general way, but as for thinking
that they might have it themselves the idea has never occurred to
them. Why, only last week--this happened: --
NURSE: Dr. Young will see you, Mrs. Wait.
MRS. WAIT: Thank you. Good afternoon, Dr. Young.
DR. YOUNG: How do you do, Mrs. Wait? You're looking very well
for a sick woman,--seems to me.
MRS. WAIT: Oh, I'm not sick, Doctor. I'm thinking of getting
married again. Does that surprise you?
DR. YOUNG: Well, now, to be perfectly frank, I can't say that it
does. And I hope you will be very happy.
MRS. WAIT: So do I, Dr. Young. And that is why I came to you,
really. I want to have a good thorough physical examination. Most
of all, I want to make sure that I am not tuberculous. My first hus-
band died of tuberculosis, you remember, and I took care of him for
a long time. I really don't think it would be fair to marry again
unless I'm sure I'm perfectly healthy.
DR. YOUNG: So I gave her a thorough examination, and as a matter
of routine included a Wassermann. The positive laboratory report
and my examination showed that my patient had syphilis--something
I knew she did not even remotely suspect. So when she came back
MRS. WAIT: Good afternoon, Dr. Young. Here I am again. What
is your report?
DR. YOUNG: The X-rays show no signs at all of tuberculosis.
MRS. WAIT: I am so relieved.
DR. YOUNG: But I must tell you that you have another disease
which is even more serious.
MRS. WAIT: Not cancer?
DR. YOUNG: No. Not cancer, thank heaven. And it is something
of which you can be entirely cured, I believe. But it will take time.
MRS. WAIT: Time? It is contagious, Doctor? Oh, tell me what
DR. YOUNG: It is a condition you could pass on to others. I'm
very sorry to have to tell you this. And yet it is very fortunate that
we have discovered it.
MRS. WAIT: Discovered--what, Dr. Young?
DR. YOUNG: Don't be alarmed. The disease of which I speak is
MRS. WAIT: Syphilis? You mean I have syphilis? Why, Dr.
Young--I couldn't have it? There must be some mistake. I ... I ...
DR. YOUNG: You're a good woman--that's what you're trying to
say, isn't it? I know that, Mrs. Wait. You don't have to tell me
that. But syphilis strikes good women, too. It is no respecter of
MRS. WAIT: Then how . . .
DR. YOUNG: Your husband may have been infected or perhaps--
MRS. WAIT: Oh, Doctor, no! Not my husband!
DR. YOUNG: Didn't know it himself, probably.
MRS. WAIT: He would never have done that to me!
DR. YOUNG: Of course not. Not knowingly.
MRS. WAIT: And I--I would never. . . . Oh, Doctor. I was going
to be married next month. What can I do?
DR. YOUNG: Well the upshot of it is that she's going to postpone
her marriage and take the treatments. But it means a year, or two
years. I wish I'd tried the Wassermann on her husband when I was
treating him for T.B. It would have saved his wife some grief, at
any rate. But at that time I wasn't using blood tests unless there
were symptoms which called for it. Of course, she may have been
DR. NUGENT: I've got to admit I haven't made blood tests a routine,
either. And yet when it comes to diagnosis, it is one of the most
dependable aids we have. Some patients object, you know.
DR. WHITEHEAD: I'm afraid that we doctors as well as the general
public have been victims of the conspiracy of silence which exists
toward this whole subject of syphilis. As physicians we ought to
take the lead in giving people a reasonable scientific point of view.
After all, it's a disease, and not a disgrace. We should be on the
lookout for it all the time.
DR. NUGENT: Wouldn't you think that insurance companies would
insist on blood tests?
DR. YOUNG: Well, some of them do. And industries, with thou-
sands of men and women on the payroll--are beginning to figure the
enormous loss in compensation payments and the time lost on the sick
list due to syphilis.
DR. WHITEHEAD: When they wake up to it, they '11 be our strongest
allies in demanding more public funds to fight syphilis. In the mean-
time, it is our job as physicians to help our patients realize the respon-
sibility they have as individuals in this effort to control the disease.
DR. NUGENT: Well, I'm telling you it's no easy matter to break the
news to an unsuspecting patient--a fine, home-loving woman particu-
larly. You could understand it if she walked right out on you--gave
you a black eye with all her friends, and all the rest of it.
DR. YOUNG: I think you'll soon get better cooperation than that,
on the whole. After all, the general public is waking up. I don't
know whether it's some outraged patient who has given me what you
call a black eye, Nugent, but since I began using the Wassermann as
a routine part of all physical examinations, quite a number of patients
have turned up who tell me pointblank that that's what they're there
for. They've read about blood tests in the newspapers and maga-
zines; they've heard about them on the radio. . . . I tell you, Dr.
Whitehead, we doctors have got to step lively if we're going to take
the lead in breaking down the prejudice against speaking of syphilis.
Seems to me quite a start has been made already.
DR. WHITEHEAD: That's true. I see it in my own practice. I've
been giving a blood test in connection with prenatal examinations
for some time now and I've had some surprising experiences with it.
There was one case a very intelligent young woman, who certainly
had no reason to suspect that she was infected. Her husband was a
young college professor and she herself of fine family. And yet she
showed repeatedly positive blood test. When I told her she said:
YOUNG WOMAN: Doctor . . . I don't care for myself. But my
baby. My poor little baby. Doctor Whitehead, I won't have it. It's
not fair. I know--I've read about syphilis. That's why I asked for
the test--to make sure. But I never dreamed. Oh, no, I won't have
it ! My baby will be a cripple, or feeble-minded. . . . No! Dr. White-
head, you've got to help me!
DR. WHITEHEAD: There, there, my dear. I can help you. But not
in the way you mean. It's been about three months, hasn't it? Well,
there is still time.... So she started the treatments. And six months
later---- (A new-born baby is heard crying.)
YOUNG WOMAN: Is that my baby, Doctor?
DR. WHITEHEAD: It is.
NURSE: It's a fine, eight-pound boy--as sound and healthy as you
ever could hope to see.
YOUNG WOMAN: Thank God! (She sobs a little.) Thank God.
DR. WHITEHEAD: That's what makes a doctor proud of his pro-
fession--things like that. It's one of the marvels of science that we
can almost guarantee the birth of a healthy child, even when the
mother is infected with syphilis, provided we get her under treatment
soon enough. It should be a matter for public congratulation just
as much as the discovery of a new comet--more!
DR. NUGENT: Can't blame your patient for being shocked when
she learned she had syphilis. The chances were certainly against the
DR. YOUNG: Yes. What unnecessary suffering mothers endure!
The State ought to require every woman to have a test early in
DR. NUGENT: Or better still, require doctors to take the blood for
the test! What proportion would be found to have syphilis, do you
DR. WHITEHEAD: About one woman in every twelve--at least judg-
ing from the results where tests have been made, one pregnant woman
in twelve has syphilis.
DR. NUGENT: Any idea how much there is in the country as a
DR. WHITEHEAD: Six and a half million cases, is the estimate, I
believe, based on surveys in various sections. It's a pity that we
can't get accurate surveys in every one of the states. If people knew
more about it, we'd be on the way to success.
DR. YOUNG: Yes, if the public began to realize that 10 per cent of
the insanity and 15 per cent of the blind, to say nothing of a large
proportion of heart disease, cripples and the feeble-minded can be
traced to untreated syphilis, they might help the health authorities,
doctors and nurses to discover all infections, old as well as new.
DR. WHITEHEAD: Discovering them isn't enough. They've got to
be made non-infectious. They can't be left running at large, any
more than smallpox or diphtheria patients can.
DR. YOUNG: Well, that's a job for the health department, but as
doctors we can help to make our particular patients take some respon-
sibility in the matter--not only for their own cure, but for the pro-
tection of their families or any others with whom they are in intimate
contact. It's a tough proposition, too. Take some of these young
chaps. As long as they can see the symptoms, they'll come for treat-
ments. But when the rash disappears, well, they feel all right. . . .
DR. WHITEHEAD: That's the trouble--they feel all right. If only
it kept them in misery, like the toothache, for example--until they got
rid of it.
DR. YOUNG: Well, I've found it helps to tell them the plain un-
varnished truth--as I did yesterday--"Now see here, young man,
nothing doing. I'm not going to touch your case again. You don't
want to get well!
YOUNG MAN: But, Doc. . . .
DR. YOUNG: Don't you "But doc" me. You promised to report
to me every week until we got this thing licked. So you reported five
or six times, and then . . .
YOUNG MAN: Well, I felt all right. I thought maybe once a
month . . .
DR. YOUNG: You thought? Listen, next time you're thinking, think
of this . . . There's an army of vicious germs in you--the wicked
end of a corkscrew, that's what they look like--and they may be bur-
rowing into your bones and your liver and your blood vessels just as
fast as they can. Can you understand that? They are digging, per-
haps, into your spinal cord and into your brain. They mean to kill
you if they can. Now--we doctors know how to poison those germs.
We can kill every last one of them--without hurting the patient,
either. All the patient has to do is to spend a few minutes once a
week in a doctor's office--and can he do it? No! It's too much
trouble. He neglects treatment and probably spreads the disease to
others. Good heavens, man. Think of the trouble someone took to
discover a combination that will save you from going insane, or blind,
or crippled--and then you. . . .
YOUNG MAN: Honest, Doctor Young. I didn't realize it was that
serious. If you'll take me on again, I'll be regular--I promise.
DR. WHITEHEAD: That's one way to keep some of them coming, I
suppose. But I feel that it's up to the community to give us a hand.
I don't mean just the patient's family. I mean some kind of follow-
up system by the health department. Every case of syphilis ought
to be under treatment at least until they've passed the point where
they can infect others. And the health department should have
enough doctors and nurses to instruct and follow up these cases.
DR. NUGENT: What about the poor devils who can't afford to keep
coming every week for a year or two years or whatever is necessary?
DR. WHITEHEAD: In my opinion, that's up to the community, too--
DR. YOUNG: The community--and the doctors. Personally, I'd be
glad to give the treatments for a nominal sum to poor people, provided
the state would furnish the drugs and the laboratory service. I can't
afford to contribute those.
DR. WHITEHEAD: Many states already are doing just that.
DR. NUGENT: It must be a tough problem sometimes for a patient
to go about finding a doctor to treat syphilis.
DR. YOUNG: Of course he can ask the family doctor if he has one.
If not, the health department, the county medical society, or some
good hospital will certainly recommend a good physician whose
charges will not be unreasonable. And now, many places have small
fee clinics for patients who can pay only 50 cents or so.
DR. NUGENT: Most anyone could afford a couple of dollars a week,
I should think.
DR. WHITEHEAD: No, you're wrong there. You have many in-
stances in which there are three or four in a family--all infected and
all needing treatment. That would be beyond many families, even at
fifty cents a week each. But clinics--more and better clinics for the
very poor is the answer to that.
DR. YOUNG: Right. The Public Health Service has done a great job
with all sorts of communicable diseases. If they get real support
from the people, coupled with the united efforts of all of us in the
medical profession, syphilis, as Dr. Parran says, will be the next great
plague to go. As doctors, it is up to us to find syphilis by using the
microscope and blood tests, and by thorough physical examinations,
and when we find it, to treat it promptly, thus stopping its spread
and increasing the chances of cure. . . .
DR. NUGENT: To examine persons who have been in contact with
the patient and treat them if they have become infected. . . .
DR. WHITEHEAD: To discover the source of the patient's infection
and get that person under treatment also. With the help of the
community--telling the people the simple, hopeful truth, working all
together, we can stamp out syphilis.
You have been listening to three doctors on the mezzanine of the
Grand Hotel in Pioneer City, where they have been attending a con-
ference called by the American Social Hygiene Association. For fur-
ther information about the nation-wide drive to stamp out syphilis,
address the Association in care of the station to which you are
Distributed for broadcast circa February 2, 1938
Source: Journal of Social Hygiene, March 1938,
Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 146-152