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Syphilis Movies and Chicago

In educating 1930s Chicagoans about the dangers of syphilis, movies played a couple of roles

In the mid-1930s, syphilis was widespread in the United States:

  • Roughly 1/10 Americans suffered from the venereal disease

  • 18% of deaths from heart disease were attributed to syphilis

  • 60,000 children were born each year with congenital syphilis (Brandt 129-30).

With penicillin 10 years away, doctors treated syphilis with arsenic, bismuth, and mercury. Treatment was not cheap, costing some patients $300-$1,000!

To curb this spreading disease, the New York State health commissioner proposed several plans to enact nationally. Among his suggestions:

  • Offer free testing centers

  • Make blood testing mandatory before marriage and early in pregnancy

  • Educate the public concerning syphilis

In educating the public about the dangers of syphilis, movies would play a couple of roles.

Syphilis Movies for Doctors

In the 1930s, syphilis movies were aimed at doctors.

The American Medical Association and U.S. Public Health Service created training films like Syphilis: A Motion Picture Clinic to show doctors, step by step, how to examine patients and test for the disease.

These movies offered physicians the latest information about causes, effects, and treatment of syphilis. They also included "explicit images of affected genitalia" and, thus, were not deemed suitable for the general public of the 1930s.

(Little did the films' creators know at the time that their work would eventually circulate on something called YouTube!)

Syphilis Movies for the Public

In the 1930s, syphilis movies—and movie-like propaganda—also targeted the general public, Chicagoans included.

As these clippings from the Chicago Tribune and surrounding Chicago newspapers point out, in the late 1930s, Chicagoans could attend free movies and talking-slide films about syphilis.

High schools, women's and men's clubs, and parent-teacher associations were invited to view these "clean, educational picture[s]" and slides designed to help eradicate "the menace of syphilis."

One talking-slide movie called For All Our Sakes (1936) was reportedly produced in Chicago at Burton Holmes Studios, 459 E. Ontario St. Its first screening took place off Lake Shore Dr. and Superior St.

For All Our Sakes featured 100+ projected slides operated in connection with a phonograph disc recording. From 1937-38, it was shown in several states in addition to Illinois.

Based on the letter from the American Social Hygiene Association that accompanied For All Our Sakes, Chicagoans were assured they were not watching "a Chamber of Horrors picture." Rather, the approach to the spreading problem was "sane and enlightening" and designed for mixed audiences.

In short, no one would be embarrassed, not even the "most sensitive individual."

While we no longer have visual evidence, For All Our Sakes was evidently "attractively photographed" and "accompanied by a voice of unusual variety and vividness" (Pinney 167).


In 1936, Dr. Jean B. Pinney writes that social hygiene "naturally lends itself to interpretation through the motion picture." She cites Damaged Goods (1915) as "the first social-hygiene drama film" and similar films that were created during WWI, the latter of which may have kept a low rate of syphilis among U.S. soldiers.

We've known from their inception that moving images are powerful and can be used in various ways: to narrate, entertain, promote, scare, express, and persuade. We can add to the list: to educate Chicagoans on the potential dangers of diseases like syphilis.



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