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Three wax legs showing treatment of ulcers caused by syphilis, Germany, 1910-1920

Would these gruesome wax models showing the effects of syphilis make you think twice about having sex? That was their intention when they were made in the 1910s, and collected by painter Leonce Schiffmann for a touring anatomy exhibition in the 1920s. Doctors and public health officials claimed that the spread of this sexually transmitted infection would only be halted when the public knew about its consequences and means of prevention. Education campaigns tended to exploit society’s disgust of this unsightly infection. What is your reaction to the sores and ulcers seen here on the mouth and legs? Historians have argued that this approach did not solve the problem, but added to the fear of the disease, and the stigma and discrimination towards its sufferers. ‘Before and after’ waxes also aimed to show the value of prompt treatment with ‘magic bullet’ Salvarsan, the 606th arsenic compound tested by Paul Ehrlich and his team. Look for the models with a white label – they indicate treatment with (preparation) 606. The injections were painful though, and a long course was often needed. Former carnival ‘freak’ show owners Lily Binda and William Bonardo inherited the collection a few decades later. The waxes took on yet another role – to cause sensation. The life-size models, some with genuine human hair, were toured around European fairgrounds. But whether exhibited for education or leisure, their convincing depiction of syphilis has certainly made them a talking point.

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Glossary: pathology

The branch of medicine concerned with disease, especially its structure and effects on the body.

Glossary: anatomical model

A model that demonstrates the structure of the human body through the separation of its parts. Often used for teaching purposes.

Glossary: syphilis

A sexually transmitted infection resulting in the formation of lesions throughout the body.

Glossary: sexually transmitted infection

Any disease transmitted by sexual intercourse. STIs include HIV/AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhoea, some chlamydia infections and genital herpes.

Glossary: ulcer

An open sore caused by erosion of the body surface. An ulcer can occur on the inside or outside of the body. The two most common types are mouth ulcers and stomach ulcers.