Until the late 20th century sexual health was focused on venereal disease, often just called ‘VD’ – and meaning syphilis and gonorrhoea. Until penicillin became available after the Second World War there was no effective treatment for these diseases.
Syphilis could be a killer, but people often did not know they had it. The symptom of primary syphilis (a sore), and even secondary syphilis (often a rash), could be overlooked. But tertiary syphilis could cause madness, paralysis and death. Babies infected by their mothers and born with congenital syphilis were often deformed, but many affected foetuses died in the womb.
The standard treatment was weekly mercury injections for at least 40 weeks. In 1906 the Wassermann test made diagnosis more certain, and in 1909 German doctor Paul Ehrlich developed salvarsan, a drug that was termed ‘the magic bullet’. Salvarsan still involved long courses of treatment that often did not work.
Sailors bring disease
Captain James Cook’s ship the Endeavour brought venereal disease to New Zealand in 1770. Cook disapproved of his crew having sex with Māori women, knowing they were introducing syphilis and gonorrhoea. ‘A connection with Women, I allow because I cannot prevent it, but never encouraging,’ he wrote in his journal.1 Māori had no immunity to these diseases.
Gonorrhoea, considered a minor disease, was a major cause of sterility in women, who could have it without any symptoms. It also caused blindness in babies, whose eyes were infected in the birth canal.
A long course of ‘irrigation’ treatments – disinfectant forced into the urethra for men, and the vagina for women – was the standard approach. However, although it could not be treated effectively, gonorrhoea often became dormant after a few years.
Other sexually transmitted infections
Other sexually transmitted infections, including chlamydia and herpes, were present in the New Zealand population, but were not diagnosed until well into the 20th century.
No accurate figures on rates of infection are available for the 19th and early 20th centuries. Venereal disease was a source of great shame. Seen as evidence of immoral and illicit sexual behaviour, it is likely that it often went untreated. Many people died of syphilis, but deaths were often recorded as due to some other final illness, such as pneumonia, to save embarrassment to families.
The Contagious Diseases Act 1869
In 1869 New Zealand followed Britain in introducing a Contagious Diseases Act. Under it, suspected prostitutes could be forcibly inspected for venereal disease and locked up for compulsory treatment. After decades of protest from women’s groups and others, the act was repealed in 1910.
Early 20th-century panic
Around 1900 there was a panic about venereal disease, which was often called ‘the red plague’. Sufferers were termed ‘guilty’ (people who had had sex outside of marriage) or ‘innocent’ (married women infected by their husbands, and children).
Sex information banned
Information about sex was banned. Under a 1906 law the Post Office could destroy letters or packages suspected of containing references to sexual organs. The Indecent Publications Act 1910 gave the Customs Department the right to refuse entry to ‘obscene’ books. Reference to the sexual organs or to problems arising from sexual intercourse, including venereal disease, were considered obscene.