The V.D. epidemic; The conspiracy of silence
The following program was produced by a group w o the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company and is distributed to educational stations by the national educational radio network. This is Walter McGraw and this is another in a series of reports on DVD the near-EOP disease these reports are being presented not to be sensational but because we're in the midst of an epidemic which is killing blinding and crippling countless thousands of people here in the United States in the mid 1960s. They're being produced by a group w Westinghouse Broadcasting Company in cooperation with the Columbia University School of Public Health and administrative medicine and with the American Social Health Association Ehrlichman got executive director of the American Social Health Association as a voluntary health agency about 50 years old. Which works in the fields of beauty control and family life education on the positive side of things.
Fifty years ago the D was something that wasn't mentioned. What was the approach in those days. One of the first things to do was to get it mentioned and we've had some trouble with that ever since. This is one of the things that still blocks progress. We could say that's been with us 50 years. Actually what has been called a conspiracy of silence concerning venereal disease has been with us for centuries. Example here is Northwestern University's Dr. Bergen Evans. One would expect the new real diseases to have produced a vast amount of slime. But strangely enough they've produced very little in Berrien Vanden barks huge source of slang the most complete listing of slang words that I know of. I find only 25 terms for syphilis and gonorrhea and how small this is is illustrated by the fact that the same few saurus lists over a thousand terms for money. In fact the slang terms for syphilis and gonorrhea in actual practice are really only three. See if a
shortened form for syphilis and clap or claps and dose for Donna Maria and some times jocularly package or present for the combination. Slang is essentially playful and impudent and the implication of this dearth of slang. You know a field in which one would expect a great deal of slang would seem to be that the underworld from which most of our slang comes has never found anything very playful or humorous in venereal disease. If even the underworld has been inhibited to silence by the grim specter of syphilis one of our respectable mass media here is Eric Barno author of a history of broadcasting called a tower in baseball until 1936 and no magazine of general circulation had used the word in 1036 the survey graphic carried an article. So for us which was reprinted in the Reader's Digest this was really the first time that a magazine of general circulation had used the word. I published an article
called Why don't we stamp out so for us the broadcast media continued for some years afterwards to resist any use of the word. There was an incident involving the march time when the march of time decided to have a dramatization on the subject and the network allowed the dramatization provided the disease was not mentioned by name. Finally the dramatization was broadcast. And the disease was identified rather indirectly by saying so the struggle continues against this age old disease which by a strange irony is named after a shepherd in a Latin point a shepherd whose name was syphilis. This is an accepted attitude toward this subject. It's said in the license that the station had that you would suppose do anything profane or obscene to say the word syphilis was generally thought to be an obscene thing to do. And Dr. Thomas prime the health commissioner of New York State and later the surgeon general of the United
States in the late 30s was scheduled to give a talk over CBS. He included his talk a couple of rather innocuous paragraphs on the subject of syphilis. But the network asked him to delete the paragraphs. Dr. Perrin himself told me exactly what had happened at that time. That is best for a man who is currently working on the history of United States Public Health Service. He made up his mind that not only would he fight been areal disease but he would fight the silence which covered it. And he was at that time made a consultant of Columbia Broadcasting System. He was scheduled to make a broadcast on health care and he had Sandy and what he intended to say on there which included his fight against Cephalus when he reached that studios in New York City from Albany where he had his office.
He found a very agitated young man in charge of it he said. He never referred to him except to say that this young man said to him about Dr. Perrin we cannot mention the word syphilis on the air which you indicate you intend to do. And he called in the young lady to play the piano. The announcement he made was that the broadcast by Dr. Perrin which had been scheduled at that time could not be given due to circumstances beyond their control. Dr. Perrin said he called up his wife in Albany and assured her that he had not been an automobile accident or hurt or otherwise impaired so that it was the only reason he had been allowed to talk was that he intended to use the word settle us. Well after that he became surgeon general. Yes I was a
reporter on the social hated press. And I was assigned to cover the first press conference which Dr. Perrin ever held as surgeon general. And he named two diseases as being among those on which there was already enough scientific information that they could be utterly wiped out. He named tuberculosis and syphilis. I interrupted him. But Dr. Perrin I said the Associated Press will not use the word Cephalus. He told me that the Associated Press would use the word surplus from that time on or it was highly likely they would carry no pronouncements from the surgeon general or the Public Health Service. In other words he was saying aim to use the word syphilis just about every time I open my mouth until the word syphilis is generally used. I was back to my office and told this to the man
on death. He held a consultation with the general manager and the decision that came out was that I could quote Dr. Perrin but that the word syphilis would have to be in quotation marks. It was after that that the rights that were left broke out of its foundation so successful was Dr. Perens campaign and other media that in one thousand forty eight it was decided to try a radio campaign against venereal disease. The programmes to be recorded on electrical transcriptions for distribution to radio stations were to be produced by Columbia University Eric Barno was in charge of the project. We were worried about the problem and so we consulted a number of station managers and they all said they believed heartily in what we were doing but they were unsure whether they would be able to carry the programmes or not because it
depended on what public opinion would be and their communities and they all suggested that we get a network to establish a precedent that they could point to and they all felt that this for the make it much easier for them. Well we discussed this with various network executives and to our delight. It was ABC that finally decided that they would like to do something of the sort and it was decided to call this VD The conspiracy of silence and to discuss the whole history of the syphilis problem and to try to show how the silence on the subject contributed to the problem itself. Almost as soon as the network sent out a release about this coming broadcast it began to receive protests some letters telephone calls telegrams. But the program went on and surprisingly enough nothing happened that is nothing untoward happened. It had long been felt that if
this word was mentioned on the air if this thing was discussed at any length the roof would fall and something awful would happen well actually it didn't. There were no adverse letters when the program finally got on the air they were favorable letters and they included letters from many professional people doctors ministers of all faiths people in government units headmasters of schools and so on this reaction gave enough coverage to the radio stations throughout the country so that when the distribution of the recordings began they did accept and they did take them. And several states every single station in the state accepted the recordings and suddenly the table seemed to have disappeared overnight. What were the results of your camera. We have some very specific statistics from ones the state of Tennessee the state of Tennessee Health Department computed that during
1951 alone more than 18000 people had been brought to treatment for socialists through radio programs. Now this campaign went on 49 50 51 52. So you extend that to other states and two other years and you'll see that a tremendous lot of people in a period of three or four years were being treated as a result of this intense use of the mass media. Such a sharp drop in cases of subtle us that the medical schools so they were having trouble finding cases to demonstrate to students births resulting from surface almost disappeared. So I now think was the drop that it seemed a logical thing in 1053 for the new administration to say there was no reason any longer for the federal government to be involved in this problem let's turn it back to the states and to the private physician. It seemed a logical thing to do at the
time but was perhaps a disastrous thing to do. Because a few years later it was found to be making a very sharp comeback. So that today the prevalence of syphilis has gone up a good deal. What should be done now. Undoubtedly the educational efforts. That received so much attention in the late 40s and early 50s or had to be enforced. It is dangerous to let these lag for even a moment. But what didn't one thousand forty eight was gold a conspiracy of silence. Seems like the incidence of both syphilis and gonorrhea to have returned to plague us. Our victories against both the diseases and the taboos surrounding them seem to have been somehow lost in New York City. Franks and Tora is in charge of trying not always successfully to disseminate information for the New York City Department of Health. There is some sort of conspiracy of silence on the part of mass media. They just feel that the
stigma attached to venereal disease being the type of disease that only certain people get there for our viewers will not watch it. We get a tremendous amount of lip service we will do it but see us next year because we can fit into the program. Or maybe we'll do it and then we get of course. Definitely not subject matter is not the type that we would consider for our program. One in particular and B c refused to put on a show on the Dr. Kildare series which. Subject matter dealt with and they felt the theme was unpalatable it would not go over with interviewers yet they could run shows on abortions and a variety of other social problems but they would not touch even a real disease and we were turned down by the transit authority in that they told us that they didn't want to see next to a popular detergent or popular toothpaste dead billboard. The one experience I had with Bill Bill was in billboards per se. It was with the Time-Life news service on Forty second Street and after presenting my ideas to them I wanted to have some sort of
spot announcement some sort of advertising of the fact that BT is a health problem and to notify the general viewing public of that area where they could call up for further information just a simple statement as to where they could call up and I was told that they would gladly run it if I eliminated the word syphilis gonorrhea engineer realties. Now you know you know you look at them as if they're kidding and I told them I could suggest in a way a four letter words and they don't want that either so I mean this was what the alternative is what is the BD situation in New York New York City as far as infectious venereal disease has been increasing close to 500 percent since 1957. New York City as far as gun aware. This year we had close to 30000 cases of gun it was the highest ever we put it in New York City. New York is not exceptional in Chicago Frank Centaurus counterpart is Tom feeble. One of his experience is going to leave particular radio station here and asking him to run spots which would tend to alert the public to the problem of unrealism.
They were certainly willing and we're going to run these bikes which they did but they only talk about a communicable disease. They did not talk about syphilis and gonorrhea. Consequently the listener was left a little bit on the outside they weren't really sure what the message had to say and what they were talking about it could have been me who ordered tea beer or anything else. If there is any real black it's the stigma. That's attached to venereal disease is a nasty dirty connotation and people shy away from it. And you discussing this with your colleagues. They would probably think that maybe there's something wrong with you that you even want to discuss a topic because only nasty people contract this disease. So therefore why should you trouble yourself or even be concerned about something that by and large you're never going to be confronted with. Here is a girl who thought she would never be confronted with syphilis until her doctor told her she had it. My initial reaction was blank disbelief. The factor of
expectation of likelihood for me was practically nonexistent. I had heard about venereal disease when I was very little right after the war when they first mounted the big campaign and I remember I had shocked my father by coming to him one day at the age of something like eight and asking him Daddy what is VD having heard it on the air. But I hadn't heard anything about it in the intervening years and I had taken it for granted that like smallpox or like any number of previously deadly epidemic diseases This has been wiped out too. And it was only with my personal involvement in the problem that I became aware that it had climbed to epidemic proportions again. And the initial reaction was Oh Who me. How can we overcome this idea that VD is something that happens only to other people. Here is William Schwartz educational consultant to the venereal disease branch of the communicable disease center. The best thing to do is to convince people of the fact that
day's diseases strike without regard to sex or age or race or social status or wealth or education or fluency of any kind without regard to geographical area and that they are really a threat to everyone. More about the continuing conspiracy of silence surrounding VD in just a moment. Here again is Dr. Bergen Evans. When syphilis came in as a word in English it came in 17 18 syphilis was really in effect a euphemism for the word euphemism is a linguistic term meaning speaking fair. That is euphemisms are mild genteel or indirect terms for harsh brutal a direct or terrifying terms that it's it's a euphemism to say someone passed on instead of died or someone was sick instead of vomiting. These words by the way have their place in language and they help to make sadness and terror and loathing more endurable. One
would expect for anything as dreadful and indecent as syphilis that there would be a number of euphemisms but there are practically none. There was no genteel way of speaking about that which the genteel had decided should not be spoken of at all venereal disease being acquired usually an impropriety in regard to the shaman being terrible. And yet until quite recently incurable was simply not spoken of among the genteel the respectable and the innocent. Not spoken of a toll so laws as it were driven underground where its ravages were the worse for not being admitted and faced one who decided to admit to having had syphilis and to face the conspiracy of silence. Was the college girl we heard earlier. She participated in a TV programme on the DVD. The whole point of this show was to take the moral lesson out of the discussion. Syphilis. Well I was asked a number of questions and justice was done to my replies except for the last one
which I must say I consider it the most important. And the final question had to do with my opinion as to the validity of social ostracism for people who have become infected with the new aerial disease. And my response to that question was that venereal disease was a disease like any other disease and that it ought to be dealt with as a disease like any other disease. And the fact that it was now easily curable should make it all the more imperative that this disease should be talked about in on emotional terms and moralistic terms. And I ended my response to this question by saying. All right. So I've had syphilis so many other people have had syphilis why talk about it as though it is a matter of. Sin or morals or what have you so wrought. And in the final
version of the show I was portrayed as saying Well so what if you have syphilis if you've had syphilis why bother with any kind of precautions. Who cares. Which is not only what I did not say but what I would not say because it's so completely irrational to say that of course it's a terrible disease if you let it go. But the point is that it is easily curable and if you take it out of this this moralistic context there will no longer be the incentive to hide it. And aren't you trying to wipe it out. Aren't you trying to eliminate it. Well then why I keep the discourse in the kind of terms which will make it impossible exactly the goal that you say you're trying to reach. Well my comment was taken as the springboard for the moderator to go into a long para ration which put this whole discussion right back into the moralistic terms which they were trying to eliminate in doing the show in the first place. This was some time ago and I still get angry thinking
about it because they can talk about tiff Theoria rationally they can talk about smallpox rationally but they can't talk about syphilis rationally because why it has something to do with sex. And they haven't really except the fact that people are human. If you're going to face up to the facts of life it means you are going to have to cope with this disease in the same rational unemotional and moralistic terms a doctor is that we condemn not promiscuity but the people who are unlucky enough to catch the disease. That's what I meant by so what. At the end of that question I mentioned to you I said so I got caught. So what the core of the problem is making syphilis a disease rather than a fall from grace. To this the American social health associations Earl Lippincott adds there are many people who think we should stop calling the BTV daily and should simply call it genital infection. And
on this basis the greater the number of genital exposures the greater the number of cases of the day. And whether we call it family planning or whether we call it population control or the easy access of contraception as will I think increase the number of genital exposures and will increase the VD rate. Lou think then that we should just take the attitude that there are going to be more exposures and probably younger exposures and take it from that angle. I think we have to pick it up from there and picking it up from there. I think it's a matter of community leadership being aware of this problem and being willing to develop all of the possible facets of education early diagnosis of early treatment and none of these things will work unless the leadership of the community and the public opinion in the community
wants them to work. Even though the picture may often seem to be discouraging to the few dedicated people who are working against the continuing conspiracy of silence some of that leadership has emerged at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York. Sister Mary Louis teaches nursing. She would like to see Vidi education given to our youngsters. I'd like to see presented us at to see presented as a consequence of certain acts that are performed. I'd like to see the misconceptions are wiped away. I said just the one. It can be readily contract to buy 30 toilet seats etc. and no one can say that contraction of venereal disease by a large number of persons is sinful or mmol it would depend on the individual person his education his background. One must certainly retain one's interest
- The V.D. epidemic
- The conspiracy of silence
- Producing Organization
- Westinghouse Broadcasting Company
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- This program features Dr. Bergen Evans; Professor Erik Barnouw, Columbia University; Tom Thiebaut; Frank Santora, New York City Department of Health; Sister Mary Lewis; Earl Lippincott of American Social Health Association
- Other Description
- A series about a venereal disease epidemic in the 1960s, especially among teenagers.
- Media type
Interviewee: Barnouw, Erik, 1908-2001
Interviewee: Evans, Bergen, 1904-1978
Interviewee: Thiebaut, Thomas
Interviewee: Lewis, Mary
Interviewee: Santora, Frank
Interviewee: Lippincott, Earl R.
Producing Organization: Westinghouse Broadcasting Company
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 67-40-4 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
- Chicago: “The V.D. epidemic; The conspiracy of silence,” 1967-09-27, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed January 27, 2022, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-td9n7b36.
- MLA: “The V.D. epidemic; The conspiracy of silence.” 1967-09-27. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. January 27, 2022. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-td9n7b36>.
- APA: The V.D. epidemic; The conspiracy of silence. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-td9n7b36