Excerpt, ‘… la syphilis…’ (1926)

1926. Produced by Gaumont and the Pathé Consortium Cinema. The film is available via the MedFilm website curated by the University of Strasbourg, link.

Like several interwar neurological films in our selection this film clip addressed a medical audience, albeit in the French armed forces. It interspersed footage of typical movement patterns with shots of  brain hemorrhages and stark title cards that drilled the economic costs of this ‘social disease’ into the film’s audience. ‘20% of cases in men go unrecognosed, 40% in women’. ‘Syphilis influenced three-quarters of nervous disorders. 50% of the mentally ill suffered from it.’ Later segments showed the view from the bacteriology laboratory, revealing syphilis’ causative agent, the spirochete, under the microscope. The tight links made between somatic symptoms visible to the human eye, internal organ damage, microbe, social costs spoke for the success of a forceful medical campaign to ‘make syphilis disappear’ which the film intended to instigate.

Here, on this site, its stiff-legged walks also stand as a reminder of neurosyphilis’ legendary status for interwar neurologists (and psychiatrists). By 1926, syphilis was nearly a success story. Around 1900 researchers had identified the spirochete as the infectious agent, unifying the previously differentiated conditions of neuro-lues, tabes, syphilis, and general paresis of the insane. The Wassermann test was an accepted mechanism to sort out those affected, and the introduction of Salvarsan provided a first robust treatment. Many hoped that other neurological and psychiatric diseases–schizophrenia, encephalitis lethargica, multiple sclerosis–would soon fall in line.