Tag Archives: Canadian Bulletin of Medical History

  • A General Good Time

    Written by guest blogger Matthew Smith.

    Illustration

    Judging children’s behaviour is largely a matter of perspective.  Whether we see certain childhood behaviours as positive or negative often boils down to our particular viewpoint and, crucially, how said behaviour impinges on us, the adult.  As I suggest in “Snips and Snails,” perceptions of positive and negative childhood behaviour have also changed historically, and for a wide variety of reasons that often have little to do with childhood itself.  What hasn’t changed, however, is that we adults have not tended to be particularly concerned with how children view their own behaviour.  But should we?

    There is an illustration by True Williams (1839-1897) in the original edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that nicely sums how a child’s perception of their own behaviour - and its repercussions - can differ markedly from that of an adult. In the illustration, entitled, “A General Good Time,” Tom has just fed Aunt Polly’s cat, Peter, a spoonful of “Pain-killer,” a quack medicine she has been giving Tom to pick up his spirits.  The cat goes berserk, knocking over flower pots and furniture, and eventually smashing through the window.  While everything in Tom’s posture and expression exudes how hilarious he thinks this is, his poor Aunt Polly looks mortified, hands clasped together in a desperate plea to the Almighty to set this boy right.

    Although most of us - certainly those of us who are parents - might side with Aunt Polly’s interpretation of the situation if we were left to clean up the mess, what if we saw a scene of this nature in a comedy film?  We might well laugh along with Tom at the cat’s antics.  The scene reminds me of my eight-year-old son’s recent birthday party, which was a “tubing” party at a local ski hill.  While rocketing down the hill, the children’s screams and shrieks of delight were charming; not so when they continued during the birthday lunch, held in a cramped room in the lodge.  After a few minutes, the scene in the lunchroom resembled that in “A General Good Time,” except with a dozen maniacal children replacing the cat and all manner of birthday detritus replacing the plant pots.  While some of the kids chased each other around and under the table, others engaged in a belching competition that drowned out my attempts to attain some sanity to the proceedings.  My son sat back in delight, taking in the carnage.  And if I hadn’t had to clean it all up, I might have as well.

    There is a final, telling moment towards the end of the scene depicted in “A General Good Time.”  Tom, having made Aunt Polly guilty for making him drink the Pain-killer asserts that - taste notwithstanding - the medicine did Peter the cat good.  In other words, a bit of mindless mayhem might not be all bad.  As parents - and adults - we should remember that sometimes.

    Read Matthew Smith’s article “‘Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails’: Boys and Behaviour in the USA” free for a limited time on UTP Journals Online.

  • Presumed Heterosexuality in the Archives

    Written by guest blogger, Erin Gallagher-Cohoon.

    Between 1946 and 1948, US Public Health Service (USPHS) researchers deliberately exposed Guatemalan prisoners, soldiers, asylum patients, and sex workers to syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid. Leading up to this study, it was discovered that penicillin could cure syphilis and gonorrhea, and researchers were eager to learn whether penicillin had potential as a preventative and not just a cure. The original study design called for a sexual transmission method, although this was quickly supplanted by medical exposures. To put it more bluntly, the original study design called for hiring sex workers (who had either tested positive or were simply assumed to be infected with a venereal disease) to have sex with prisoners and soldiers and thus, it was hoped, to transmit venereal diseases from the women to the men. It was politically inadvisable in the United States for government researchers to be hiring sex workers. So they headed to a country with legalized prostitution, Guatemala.

    In 2015, in the midst of my research on the USPHS’ Sexually Transmitted Disease Inoculation Study, I came across a part of the history that made no sense to me.

    At this point in my studies, the records of the lead medical researcher, Dr. John C. Cutler, had been redacted and digitized (see https://www.archives.gov/research/health/cdc-cutler-records). So, I imagine I was squinting at my laptop in confusion.

    National Archives and Records Administration

    I was reading the patient index cards. Patient 147, a male asylum patient, “was a known, highly promiscuous and active homosexual.”[1] He was not the only male subject whose index card included a reference to same-sex sexual activities.

    These homosexual encounters were significant to me because they contradicted Dr. Cutler’s own words. In his “Final Syphilis Report,” he wrote: “homosexual contacts did not significantly alter experimental results.”[2]

    National Archives and Records Administration

    How, I wondered, could Dr. Cutler so readily dismiss the possibility that homosexual contacts might have been experimentally significant? On one hand, it seemed to me, he was dismissing the same-sex sexual activity of his male research subjects; while on the other, he was recording the existence of these “contacts,” and later archiving them for future researchers to find.

    The easy answer is that these encounters, based on his records, were statistically rare, and that “no clinical evidence of spread of syphilis by this route was observed.”[3] As I argue in my recent article in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, however, this does not sufficiently explain the contradictions within the records. Rather, as the original study design shows, the study was based on a flawed understanding of disease transmission that assumed the presence of an infected female body, an assumption that was fundamentally heteronormative. Within this context, homosexual behaviour was implausible or, at best, irrelevant.

    [1] Patient 147, Index Cards, Insane Asylum Female Patients Con't, Hollinger Box 1a, CDC Record Group 442, Records of Dr. John C. Cutler, National Archives and Records Administration at Atlanta. Although grouped with the index cards of 'Insane Asylum Female Patients Con't,' this patient was in fact male. On 19 September 1947, it was noted that "Penis-papule at right of frenum, 3x5 mm. The frenum and foreskin surrounding papule are indurated."

    [2] Records of Dr. John C. Cutler, Final Syphilis Report, Folder 1, 29.

    [3] Records of Dr. John C. Cutler, Final Syphilis Report, Folder 1, 27.


    Erin Gallagher-Cohoon (Department of History, Queen's University) recently published “Despite Being ‘Known, Highly Promiscuous and Active’: Presumed Heterosexuality in the USPHS’s STD Inoculation Study, 1946–48” in the Fall 2018 issue of Canadian Bulletin of Medical History. The article is free to read for a limited time here.

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