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Syphilis and Deafness – “A Tragic Case”

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 25 January 2013

Treponema pallidum is the bacterium that causes syphilis.  Until 1905 there was no effective treatment.  It is not always sexually transmitted and can be congenital as seems to be the case in the paragraph  below.  It can cause deafness, but whether the deafness in this example was a result of syphilis or from some other cause we cannot of course say.

In the memoirs of Fred Gilby we come across the following story (dated ca. 1889), entitled ‘A Tragic Case’;

Here I may tell […]about the saddest case I have ever come across, and I am now looking back over something like fifty years and more, – there was, in the Bow and Bromley Workhouse Infirmary a poor deaf and dumb woman, her husband was the same and they had deaf and dumb children – so far the case was distressing enough – – (we will not disclose the name.  It would be unkind to the children who are now living).  Then this poor creature began to develop syphilitic symptoms in the wrists and ankles, and one by one her arms and legs had to be amputated.  I remember that at the last she was reduced to catching a piece of slate pencil which dangled from above, between her teeth and then writing with it upon a slate – the slate of course had been fixed at a convenient angle.  We however could be understood by her easily enough through the sign language which she could see us using.  Her faith held out to the end.  The sins of her parents had indeed been visited upon her.  She was mercifully taken not long after.  R.I.P.  Quite an appreciable proportion of deaf people owe their affliction to the disease indicated. We veil it under the name of Hutchinsonian symptoms. If the reader wishes to pursue the subject further he should read Dr. Kerr Love’s Lectures on Deaf Mutism procurable from the National Institute for the Deaf.  I have come across some who refused to believe that this disease is ever inherited among the deaf.  A member of the committee of a school for the deaf in the north of England denied it with his heart, while the head master of the school quietly pointed out to me a score of such cases.

The ‘Hutchinsonian symptoms’ are named after Sir Jonathan Hutchinson. He “was the first to describe his triad of medical signs for congenital syphilis: notched incisor teeth, labyrinthine deafness and interstitial keratitis” (Wikipedia).  The discovery of penicillin greatly reduced the disease in the 1940s but the last decade has seen it begin to increase again. There is increasing concern in medical circles about the overuse of antibiotics which are our only effective tools against many diseases that are now becoming resistant through their wasteful or pointless overuse.

In his book The Diseases of the Ear, regarding hereditary syphilis, Toynbee says that deafness from that had at Guy’s Hospital

furnished more than one twentieth of the aural patients. […] The patients present the now familiar aspect of hereditary syphilis and have, in every case I have met with, suffered from impaired vision before the deafness has arisan.  This makes its appearance generally between the 10th and 16th year; about, but not precisely coinciding with, the perion of puberty.  The great majority of cases that I have seen have been in females.  […] I know of no other affection, except fever, which in a person under 20 brings on a deafness so prapid or nearly complete. (Toynbee, p.461)

Of course we are talking about “the poorer classes of the community” here (ibid).  He adds later, “In the wealthier ranks the symptoms are often much lkess marked” (p.462)!

[Post updated 24/11/2016 with Toynbee quotes]

F.W.G. Gilby, Seventy-two years among the deaf and dumb

Dr. Kerr Love,  Lectures on Deaf Mutism

Jospeh Toynbee, The Diseases of the Ear, their Nature, Diagnosis and Treatment. 1868 edition

Mary Ingle Wright, The pathology of  deafness, MUP 1971




One Response to “Syphilis and Deafness – “A Tragic Case””

  • 1
    Paul O’Brien (Dr) wrote on 21 November 2016:

    Hello. I was wondering if the possible relation between syphilis and deafness was known in the early 1800s.