Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, April 29, 2016

U.S. WWI Venereal Disease in One Chart

I found the chart below at the website of the National Museum of American History (part of the vast Smithsonian collection).  Other than for some mathematical shortcomings, it says a lot about American society in 1917 and 1918.  Camp Lewis, Washington, the largest cantonment in the western states, trained men for the 13th, 40th, 91st Divisions, and several other formations and specialties. As you can see below, 88,000 men were mustered in at the Camp. This image caught my eye since a number of my relatives passed through Camp Lewis and are included in the statistics.

Recall now that these men had been passed medically for induction before arriving at the camp. So the 88,000 new soldiers represent a cross section of the fittest young males of the nation. From a 21st-century perspective, its report of an infection rate of .42 percent (incorrectly stated on the chart) from venereal disease (gonorrhea and syphilis) is shocking.  

Then, I thought, "Just a minute, we are living in a post-sexual revolution time in history. Maybe the statistics of 100 years ago are not out of alignment with today's less sexually inhibited population."  So, I looked up the pertinent statistics from the Center for Disease Control.

In 2014, men aged 20–24 years (roughly the equivalent population) had the highest rate of gonorrhea (485.6 cases per 100,000 males) and second highest rate of any age group for primary and secondary syphilis. (31.1 cases per 100,000 males).

Ignoring patients with a double diagnosis, this gives a composite figure of 516.7 cases per 100,000 males  or a 0.52 percent infected rate. Comparing our 2014 population to the Camp Lewis group, it appears that young men then were roughly 8 times more likely to be carrying what we now call sexually transmitted diseases.

What can we gather from this? Even after allowing for the post-AIDS "Safe Sex" campaigns, the figures for 1917–18 are still shockingly high. There was an apparently unknown epidemic, a monumental public health problem in America, because surely if the healthiest and fittest segment of the population was so afflicted, it suggests similar trends in the general population

I wonder if this would have been discovered if the need had not arisen to induct and medically examine millions of young Americans into the military.


  1. Another factor you'd have to figure in, in regards to modern infection rates, are the post World War Two spread of antibiotics, which would likely cut down on infection rates to a very high degree in the current population, both directly and overall in rate of society.

    Still, you have a good point. I tend to think that the concept that people have of all prior eras being "innocent" up until one that they have a frame of reference for is quite overdone. Certainly the prevailing views on the conduct that this entails were very much different, but that doesn't mean that there wasn't a fair amount of departure from the standards. Conversely, today there may be more adherence to older standards than people will admit or suppose.

  2. Today it is far far easier to obtain condoms than it would have been in 1917. And likely far cheaper as well. So today's population adhering to older standards doesn't seem that likely an explanation for present day lower rates of STDs. More likely is the simplicity of obtaining condoms now than in 1917.

  3. The board states 4.2 cases per 1000, not 4.2%. The percentage would be .42% instead, which is more in line with modern case levels.

    1. Thanks for catching that. I think we were guilty of over-editing in that situation. I've re-corrected it.