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Treating venereal disease

German salvarsan kit, c. 1912.

German salvarsan kit, c. 1912.

Credits:Science Museum, London/SSPL

Before the mid-1800s sexually transmitted infections, then known as venereal disease, were accepted as a normal part of war. Prostitutes stationed themselves around the garrison towns and were part of the military scene. They were tolerated because they could satisfy the soldiers’ needs for female company, and it was thought they would ensure the soldiers did not indulge in homosexual behaviour.

The first Contagious Diseases Act was passed in Britain in 1864 to try and begin controlling venereal disease, which was having a dramatic impact on fighting forces. One in three cases of sickness in the military was a result of venereal disease, especially syphilis and gonorrhoea. It took a long time to treat, which meant time away from fighting. The Contagious Diseases Act was controversial, as it tended to try and control female prostitutes, rather than change soldiers’ behaviour.

During the First World War men would occasionally try to infect themselves with venereal disease to get away from the terrible conditions that existed at the front. New drugs such as Salvarsan were developed to cure syphilis and soldiers were educated on the dangers of venereal disease. Gonorrhoea was treated by the sulphonamides developed in the 1930s. However, venereal disease was still a problem and although it could be treated with drugs, soldiers could still lose time away from battle while they were treated. In the Second World War most soldiers were supplied with condoms as a barrier to prevent them becoming infected with venereal disease.


R Davidson and L Hall (eds), Sex, Sin and Suffering: Venereal Disease and European Society since 1870 (London: Routledge, 2001)

T E Osmond, ‘Venereal Disease in Peace and War’, British Journal of Venereal Disease, 25/3 (1949), p101



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


A sexually transmitted infection that affects the genital membranes of either sex. Symptoms include a yellowish discharge from the genitals.