Pox Americana

Microbes and Morals: The Strange Story of Venereal Disease

by Theodor Rosebury M.D.
Viking, 361 pp., $7.95

Dr. Rosebury’s readable and enlightening account of the history and present extremely active status of venereal disease is interesting for reasons that far transcend his subject. The subject itself is, of course, of general interest. Syphilophobia is a classic form of obsessional anxiety, frequently encountered and described in the psychiatric literature. Presumably, on grounds of symmetry, syphilophilia must also exist among persons of more exotic taste. There is, moreover, a special satisfaction to be gained from reflecting on venereal disease during the Yuletide season, when fantasies of domestic bliss are apt to get out of hand, driving the suicide rate up sharply throughout Christendom.

Venereal disease and the family have a common origin; and while, if authorities like R. D. Laing are to be believed, the latter is a far more potent source of misery, madness, and human waste than the former, VD may still constitute the more serious problem. The family, though still highly pathogenic, is said to be losing its power and may be dying out. Venereal disease is more prevalent than ever. “The United States figures for 1968 and 1969, which became available early in 1970, showed gonorrhea at the top of the list of reportable infectious diseases; and it began to be spoken of in terms of ‘epidemic proportions’ and even as ‘out of control,’ ” Dr. Rosebury reports.

The increase in VD is, of course, the principal reason for this book. With gonorrhea this increase has been going on long enough to be far beyond any chance of error or excuse; and as the same thing seems to be happening with syphilis, the danger signals are getting too loud and insistent to be ignored.

Urgent importance does not, however, ensure that readers will pay attention. Even if the Gravel-voiced Papers had been published under the title Everything You Always Wanted to Know About America’s Role in Indochina (But Were Afraid to Ask), their sales might not have been much greater. But Dr. Rosebury’s book, though written with impeccable taste, may well enjoy the success it deserves and requires if it is to dispel public apathy about a serious and growing threat that could be controlled with a little hygienic care.

Microbes and Morals resumes the tradition of masterful treatment of medical problems in books for the general reader that seems to have lapsed since the days of Paul De Kruif and Hans Zinsser. This lapse corresponds to the concurrent decline in the status of the doctor and scientist as popular heroes: no serious writer today is likely to produce a new version of Arrowsmith. Recent popular writing about medicine has emphasized the politics and economics rather than the scientific triumphs of the profession, and has taken a relatively dim view of doctors’ dilemmas. Books like Berton Roueché’s The Incurable Wound are a partial exception and attest to the public’s continued interest in reading about diseases; but they also, I think, partake of this anti-heroic trend. Roueché’s hard-working public health bureaucrats bear the…

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