“If only rain could fall inside a room”

In June 1983, about two and a half years after John M Hull registered as blind, he began to record an audio diary onto cassette tapes. Notes on Blindness, A journey through the dark collects John’s recordings together into a book, exploring his profound sense of loss, altered perceptions of time and space, of waking and sleeping, love and companionship. In this extract, John first explains why he began recording his experiences, and goes on to describe the surprising ways that heavy weather can reveal the unseen world to him.

This was when the truth of being blind began to hit me. You may wonder why it took so long, but the first couple of years were full of exciting problems to be solved. It was only afterwards that I began to make the transition from being a sighted person who could not see to being a blind person.

Sometimes I added something to my cassette every day, day after day, but sometimes weeks would go past. I recorded things that I felt strongly about; when they puzzled me, or delighted me, I said what I had to say in order to help me to grapple with what was going on. I kept this up for three years, and gradually the need to make further recordings grew less. I spoke about my children, my work, my relations with women and men, and I recorded my dreams.

 

9 September 1983

This evening, at about nine o’clock, I was getting ready to leave the house. I opened the front door, and rain was falling. I stood for a few minutes, lost in the beauty of it. Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience.

I hear the rain pattering on the roof above me, dripping down the walls to my left and right, splashing from the drainpipe at ground level on my left, while further over to the left there is a lighter patch as the rain falls almost inaudibly upon a large leafy shrub. On the right, it is drumming, with a deeper, steadier sound upon the lawn. I can even make out the contours of the lawn, which rises to the right in a little hill. The sound of the rain is different and shapes out the curvature for me. Still further to the right, I hear the rain sounding upon the fence which divides our property from that next door. In front, the contours of the path and the steps are marked out, right down to the garden gate. Here the rain is striking the concrete, here it is splashing into the shallow pools which have already formed. Here and there is a light cascade as it drips from step to step. The sound on the path is quite different from the sound of the rain drumming into the lawn on the right, and this is different again from the blanketed, heavy, sodden feel of the large bush on the left. Further out, the sounds are less detailed. I can hear the rain falling on the road, and the swish of the cars that pass up and down. I can hear the rushing of the water in the flooded gutter on the edge of the road. The whole scene is much more differentiated than I have been able to describe, because everywhere there are little breaks in the patterns, obstructions, projections, where some slight interruption or difference of texture or of echo gives an additional detail or dimension to the scene. Over the whole thing, like light falling upon a landscape, is the gentle background patter gathered up into one continuous murmur of rain.

I think that this experience of opening the door on a rainy garden must be similar to that which a sighted person feels when opening the curtains and seeing the world outside. Usually, when I open my front door, there are various broken sounds spread across a nothingness. I know that when I take the next step I will encounter the path, and that to the right my shoe will meet the lawn. As I walk down the path, my head will be brushed by fronds of the overhanging shrub on the left and I will then come to the steps, the front gate, the footpath, the culvert and the road. I know all these things are there but I know them from memory. They give no immediate evidence of their presence, I know them in the form of prediction. They will be what I will be experiencing in the next few seconds. The rain presents the fullness of an entire situation all at once, not merely remembered, not in anticipation, but actually and now. The rain gives a sense of perspective and of the actual relationships of one part of the world to another.

If only rain could fall inside a room, it would help me to understand where things are in that room, to give a sense of being in the room, instead of just sitting on a chair.

An image of the front cover of 'Notes on Blindness'

‘Notes on Blindness, A journey through the dark’ by John M Hull

This is an experience of great beauty. I feel as if the world, which is veiled until I touch it, has suddenly disclosed itself to me. I feel that the rain is gracious, that it has granted a gift to me, the gift of the world. I am no longer isolated, preoccupied with my thoughts, concentrating upon what I must do next. Instead of having to worry about where my body will be and what it will meet, I am presented with a totality, a world which speaks to me.

Have I grasped why it is so beautiful? When what there is to know is in itself varied, intricate and harmonious, then the knowledge of that reality shares the same characteristics. I am filled internally with a sense of variety, intricacy and harmony. The knowledge itself is beautiful, because the knowledge creates in me a mirror of what there is to know. As I listen to the rain, I am the image of the rain, and I am one with it.

This extract is taken from Notes on Blindness, A journey through the dark by John M Hull, published by Wellcome Collection.

The image at the top of this article is taken from the feature film Notes on Blindness, an Archer’s Mark production, in association with Fee Fie Foe Films and 104 Films, and in co-production with Agat Films & Cie and ARTE France.

Sharing Nature: feeling mortal

As part of our Sharing Nature project, over the past fortnight we asked you to share your photos on the theme DEAD, and respond to other people’s submissions. You decided Jeane Trend-Hill’s contribution was most meaningful.

“A robin’s nest inside a human skull, at the ossuary in Hythe, Kent. The ultimate in recycling, death and birth.” Jeane Trend-Hill’s photograph and words submitted on the theme DEAD.

It’s a fantastic juxtaposition. The robin’s nest likely makes us think of eggs, and therefore birth and new beginnings. The human skull perhaps pushes us to think about what lies beneath our skin, or to ponder our mortality.

The human skull is a common symbol for piracy, hazards, toxicity and death. Beyond that, skulls aren’t something most of us see all that often, not real ones anyway, unless you go to a production of Hamlet and they happen to keep Yorick real. But at St Leonard’s Church at Hythe in Kent, where Jeane Trend-Hill took her picture, you can see over 1,000 of them.

In fact, St Leonard’s claims to have the largest and best-preserved collection of ancient human bones and skulls in Britain, boasting, among other things, “a single stack of bones and skulls measuring 7.5m in length, 1.8m in width and just over 1.8m in height”. The crypt – or ‘ossuary’ –  is thought to be home to the remains of 2,000 people, and theories have abounded over who they might be, from those killed during the Battle of Hastings in 1066, to victims of the Black Death. General consensus now suggests the bones belonged to Hythe residents who were originally buried but had to be dug up when the church was extended in the 13th century.

An ossuary is a place where human skeletal remains are kept, and can range in shape and size from a box to a building. Some of the most famous are the vast catacombs in Paris, which are thought to house the remains of more than 6 million people. They were constructed in the late 1700s when the city’s cemeteries were too packed to take any more bodies. An ossuary is often used when space for burial is limited (individual coffins can take up a lot of space).

‘Natural’ or ‘green’ burials are an increasingly popular alternative to cemeteries, crematoria, catacombs and crypts. They’ve been around since the late 1980s (although of course ‘natural burial’ would have been ‘normal burial’ in the past), and the idea is to return the body to the earth in as low impact a way as possible, often in a woodland setting.

Jeane Trend-Hill mentions recycling in her contribution to the Sharing Nature project, and that’s exactly what natural burial is all about. In an article for Mosaic, Fathima Simjee explains that the deceased person is buried in a manner that doesn’t inhibit decomposition. She quotes Rosie Inman-Cook, manager of the Natural Death Centre, who says, “People like to think that the nutrients in their body will be recycled and will be of some use to the soil, and the fauna and flora that the soil supports”. In this way a death makes future life possible, and so the natural cycle can continue.

What’s neat about Jeane’s photograph is that the robin’s nest makes it very much an image on the theme of life as well as death. The RSPB reveals that robins “are famous for nesting in all kinds of unlikely locations, including sheds, kettles, boots, hanging baskets, coat pockets, under car bonnets, in farm machinery, even on boats in daily use”. What seems to be most important to the robin is finding a “fully concealed cavity”, where it can construct a cup-shaped nest made from dead leaves, moss and hair. It turns out your skull is not only a fantastic, bony construction that keeps your brain safe and all your head bits in place. In the future it could also have a second life as a happy home for Britain’s best-loved bird.

Sharing Nature continues until 1 October 2017, and upcoming themes include green, alone, plastic, health, and consume. A museum of modern nature is at Wellcome Collection until 8 October 2017.

A monkey doctor, wearing glasses and a hat, examines a supine cat.

10 animals doing things only doctors should do

Wellcome Collection is 10 years old this summer, and we’re celebrating by sharing some of our top 10 favourite things from the collections.

It turns out animal-human hybrids doing medical things was a common theme in popular prints. Here are 10 ambitious animals making out like they’re human beings, including a bespectacled monkey examining a supine cat, a beautifully dressed bunny being attended by a midwife who also happens to be a hen, and a tabby covered in condoms.

1. Cats mocking quacks

A cat in a feathered turban, and with human hands, disembowels one of its own, watched by various other animal-headed humans. The verse on this engraving from the early 18th century reads: “Behold how in the colledge hall, the surgeons and the doctors all, are met in consultation wise, a carcase to anatomize.”

Image credit: Wellcome Library.

Graphic satire was often used to mock the medical profession, and its quacks and quackeries, from the 17th century on. Animals made excellent figures of fun. This early 18th century engraving shows a handsome, human-handed cat in a feathered turban, disemboweling one of its own, watched by various other animal-people. The verse reads: “Behold how in the colledge hall, the surgeons and the doctors all, are met in consultation wise, a carcase to anatomize.”

2. Monkey, barber, surgeon

V0017621-monkey-barbers

Image credit: Wellcome Library.

Before it became illegal in 1745, barbers performed minor surgery as well as cutting hair. With doctors unwilling to perform surgical tasks before this time, the often illiterate barbers happily stepped in. They trained as apprentices, rather than academics, and were mocked for it. In this image a monkey-barber trims a cat’s whiskers, another treats an injured foot, while a wounded monkey arrives supported by two dogs.

3. The art of ‘fleaology’

V0011066-monkey-physician

Image credit: Wellcome Library.

Monkeys and cats were some of the most common creatures in graphic satire. Monkeys were often shown ‘aping’ human behaviour, and used to suggest vanity and foolishness. Here a monkey doctor practices the art of ‘fleaology’ on a feline patient.

4. Rapid relief for wealthy hypochondriacs

V0011084-monkey-enema

Image credit: Wellcome Library.

Images where fashionably dressed monkeys act like humans to mock their foolish ways are known as ‘singeries’, which means ‘monkey tricks’ or ‘monkey house’ in French. The lithograph above from 1830-9 shows an angry monkey with a giant syringe squirting two other apes with water. Clysters – or enemas – were popular forms of constipation relief for wealthy hypochondriacs from the 17th to the 19th century.

5. Doggy dentistry

V0011067-monkey-dentist

Image credit: Wellcome Library.

In this 19th century print, a monkey dentist wearing a rather smart jacket extracts the teeth of a submissive dog. Other “victims” wait their turn. Until the early 20th century in Europe, tooth extractions were carried out by traveling dentists at town fairs. The dentists were known as ‘tooth drawers’, and would pull teeth at phenomenally fast rates, often for free.

6. An over-indulged cat 

V0011064-cat-mumps

Image credit: Wellcome Library.

A human doctor examines the pulse of a well-dressed cat while it bathes its feet in a tub. The handwritten text reads: “Bad symptoms – quick pulse – a difficulty in purring – a hoarse mew – decidedly mumps. Recipe some mouse tail soup.” Cats were popular in the 19th century, but they were also frequent subjects for satirists. Towards the end of the century, many Victorians saw them as a nuisance.

7. Lazy ass

V0011972-goya-donkey

Image credit: Wellcome Library

A donkey doctor takes the pulse of a dying man. This is one of several ‘Caprichos’ or ‘Caprices’ created by the artist Goya that feature sinister-seeming donkeys acting like privileged men. The donkey – or ass – was widely used to symbolise laziness and stupidity.

8. Froggy enema

V0011821-frog-enema

Image credit: Wellcome Library.

Featuring frog-like frogs, and human-like frogs, the idyllic scene above shows a sick frog being given an enema. In the background, a frog rows by in a canoe. While the frog certainly has witchy connotations, the amphibian could also be seen as a symbol of metamorphosis, and therefore cleansing and renewal.

9. Bunny birth scene

V0046610-rabbit-hen-birth

Image credit: Wellcome Library.

This Japanese woodcut shows a bunny that’s recently given birth to twins. Rabbits and hares have long been associated with the moon and rebirth, and used as a symbol of fertility. The belief that rabbits can be messengers of the gods persists. Okazaki-jinja is shrine in Kyoto, and, according to Lonely Planet, “The rabbit is the spirit animal here and people come to this shrine to pray for fertility and safe childbirth.”

10. Condom-clad cat

L0052725-condom-cat

Image credit: Wellcome Library.

Using animals to deliver medical-themed messages continued into the 20th century, as this ‘Safe Sex’ poster from 1995 shows. The condom-clad, cartoon cat softens the campaign message, and gives it a more universal appeal.

Would you like a playful path, a relaxed ramble or a deep dive into Wellcome Collection? Visit us this July and August, and choose your own summer

Six personal health zines that might change your life

Personal zines put health conditions back in the hands of the people who experience them. For International Zine Library Day, here are six that we love.

Like people and their health, zines come in all shapes and sizes. Among these tactile, unofficial and informal publications (‘zine’ is short for ‘fanzine’ or ‘magazine’), sometimes the smallest and most inconspicuous-looking ones explore the biggest topics. Just six passion-filled pages can concisely communicate the culture, politics and lived experience of the human condition.

From a long-standing but still-thriving scene of self-published pamphlets and  booklets, a new sub-genre has emerged: autobiographical perzines (or personal zines) give us alternative narratives of physical and mental health, focussing on human-centred issues, emotions, and experiences.

While many of us would naturally turn to official medical resources or literature when we want to know more about a condition that affects us or people that we love, zines give an inclusive and personal approach, abandoning the jargon of health practitioners for a  perspective that puts illness and treatment back in the hands of the people experiencing it.

The creators may not be health professionals, but they are experts in their own bodies and experiences, able to identify gaps or absences in mainstream advice and support. The DIY tradition of zine-making offers the opportunity to produce and distribute information and first-hand accounts easily and cheaply, leapfrogging the glossy, edited and distanced input of official publications.

Pocket-sized zines, in particular, offer an intimate reading experience, through their handmade production values, and open, honest and accessible writing. They are the small but mighty placard voicing the thoughts and feelings of the individual who needs to speak out about their own experiences, and offer comfort, support and inclusion to others who may be experiencing the same.

Wellcome Library has been collecting zines as part of our growing graphic medicine collection, and for Zine Library Day today we’ve selected a handful of the tiniest zines that explore big issues in meaningful ways.

Trich Witch, by anonymous

Trich Witch

Unassuming and discreet in style, perhaps with intention, this mini-zine contains a secret.  Like reading a very raw diary entry, this zine reveals the embarrassment, humiliation and shame the creator feels living with the obsessive hair-pulling disorder, trichotillomania. The disorder is common, but often difficult to diagnose, but this zine is an honest attempt at destigmatising some of these behaviours so others can identify with them.

What not to say to a Type I diabetic… Ever! by Charlie L.

GB. London. Wellcome Collection. Personal health zines. 2017.

What not to say to a Type I diabetic… Ever!

Humour is often used as coping or connecting mechanism to ease tension and get people to open up and communicate about issues that may be painful, taboo or awkward.  This zine is a great example of how humour can be employed to challenge our preconceptions about illness, and speak out against discrimination towards those with (in)visible illnesses or disabilities.

Keep Going and Dogs not Diets (you are more than a body shape) by Hattie Porter

Dogs not Diets

Carefully crafted, these tiny hand-sewn zines are perfect for keeping in a wallet or pocket, for a daily prompt of self-care, or slipped into an envelope to send to a friend who might need a little help in understanding struggles with mental health. Unlike other mental health zines that are very personal diary-like streams of consciousness, these give practical and practicable mental health advice (one even includes an insert with helplines and recognised resources).

Period Pragmatism by Sicily Fiennes

Period Pragmatism

Zines have been used as a vehicle for activism for decades, so it’s unsurprising that, however tiny, they continue to shout to the rafters about huge global issues succinctly and powerfully. Topics such as LGBTQ+, disability and women’s rights, racial equality and health care reform (to name a few) have all been given a platform, as well as menstrual activism and global environmental issues. This tiny zine combines the latter two, informing women about sustainable alternatives to help reduce sanitary waste, and overcoming social taboos by encouraging women to talk about menstruation more.

Every Month by Philip Kennedy

GB. London. Wellcome Collection. Personal health zines. 2017.

Every Month

Some zines require very few words to get their message across, and this mini-zine packs a visual punch. Earlier this year on International Women’s Day  Philip Kennedy put out a zine to highlight the number of Irish women who travel to the U.K. every month for an abortion. Digitally distributed, the zine is free, and can be downloaded, printed and physically shared to raise awareness of the repeal the 8th campaign.

Your body, your choice; & keeping it that way by Emma Holland, India Menuez, Ellie Alter and Layla Alter

Your body, your choice; & keeping it that way.

In the United States, activism forcefully re-entered the mainstream in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration and subsequent attacks on women’s health through funding cuts to reproductive health and education services. Repro Rights Zine, another free and open resource, was born to educate all people (women, trans and non-binary) on their reproductive rights, and the health services currently available in the US and those under threat. Distributing the zine freely is part of the revolution to inform and empower the disadvantaged, because, in their own words: “information is power, and using your voice to take ownership of the things you care about is a radical act”.

Help us collect more zines!

Wellcome Library has a growing graphic medicine collection, and is now collecting zines focussed broadly around themes of health (both physical and mental), medicine and the human condition. If you’ve made a zine that you think would complement our collection and would like to donate a copy, please contact Nicola Cook or Loesja Vigour (libraryacquisitions@wellcome.ac.uk). Follow us on social media to get updates on the collection’s development too!

 

Nicola Cook (@nicololosaurus) is a Librarian, and is interested in diversifying the voices and perspectives of health in our library collection. When she’s not cataloguing, she can be found discussing curious cures in the Reading Room or trawling the web for new zines.

Loesja Vigour  (@loesjavigour) is a Librarian who spends her time cataloguing and instagramming books for @wellcomelibrary. She is interested in seeking new and diverse audiences for the collections by engaging them with unique, beautiful, and thought-provoking content. She loves zines, children’s books, and Ant and Dec.

The prostitute whose pox inspired feminists

Fitzrovia, 1875. A woman recorded only as A.G. enters hospital and is diagnosed with syphilis.

L0074273 Tab 18, Papulopustular Syphilide, Mracek, 1898

A 24-year-old woman suffering from syphilis.

On 3 November 1875 a 19-year-old girl recorded only as A.G. was admitted to the Central London Sick Asylum in what is now Fitzrovia. As A.G. lay in bed, limbs heavy and eyelids drooping, a throbbing pain seeped down her back. Her entire body was covered with small rose-coloured spots, physical signs that marked her out as both a sufferer of syphilis and a disreputable young woman.

A.G.’s medical notes identify her as a prostitute. About eight weeks before, she may have noticed a small pimple appear. When it grew to the size of a pea, rupturing to form an ulcer, it was the first sign she had contracted a condition the medical establishment claimed to be generated within the bodies of women. Official efforts to contain the disease in the 1800s focused on controlling women – especially women like A.G. These tactics were to have unintended consequences, as they sparked the emergence of the first wave of feminism.

Syphilis was first associated with prostitution and supposed depraved behaviour soon after it appeared in Europe at the end of the 1400s. Originally known as ‘the Pox’, the name syphilis is derived from the title character of a Latin poem of 1530 in which a sinner is punished for betraying the god Jupiter. When it became apparent that it could be transmitted through sexual contact, it was interpreted as divine punishment for promiscuity.

When A.G. started working as a prostitute, ‘fallen women’ were thought to have a high risk of contracting syphilis not – as might be expected – due to their increased chance of being exposed to infection, but because of their inherent immorality. If the disease was a direct result of promiscuous intercourse, prostitutes were nothing less than a festering sore on society. Like plague-infected rats or cholera-swamped sewers, women who made their living selling sex were a problem that had to be monitored and improved.

“[The prostitute] is a woman with half the woman gone, and that half containing all that elevates her nature, leaving her a mere instrument of impurity… a social pest, carrying contamination and foulness to every quarter to which she has access.”
William Acton, Prostitution, Considered in its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects, 1857

V0042209 Journey to eternity; prostitute approaches a man and his son

Syphilis depicted as a skeleton masquerading as a prostitute, 1830

The Contagious Diseases Acts, which were first implemented in England and Ireland a decade before, provided a legal framework for keeping track of prostitutes and isolating those who were infected. Despite the generic title, the Acts were designed specifically to reduce the impact of syphilis and gonorrhoea on men serving in the military. Their reach was limited to a small number of ports or garrison towns, where plain-clothes police officers were empowered to stop any woman they had “good cause” to think might be a prostitute.

These women were then requested to submit to an internal medical examination. The inspection was described as “voluntary”, but police were known to coerce illiterate and underage women into agreeing to it. Later versions of the law made fortnightly inspection compulsory once a woman’s name had been added to an official register. Now identified as apart from – or even something less than – an ordinary woman, if she didn’t comply she could be jailed.

L0031631 A surgeon or gynaecologist examining a woman with a vaginal

A 19th-century drawing of a woman being inspected with a speculum.

“It must be acknowledged, in fact, that by this means alone can we hope to reduce the ever-growing number of cases of syphilis in women whose vice and poverty has set them outside society.”
J-B Venot, Aperçu de statistique médicale et administrative, 1837

Initially, examinations were undertaken using a cold, metal speculum, a device that enables a doctor to open up a woman’s vagina and look inside. The leading syphilis specialist of the era considered the speculum to be an indispensable “instrument of medical control”; prostitutes in France called the device “the government’s penis”, while British campaigners against the Contagious Diseases Acts used the term “instrument of rape”.

“…often they use several. They seem to tear the passage open first with their hands, and examine us, and then they thrust in instruments, and they pull them out and push them in, and they turn and twist them about.”
A woman registered as a prostitute, quoted in The Forcible Introspection, 1870

Gallery: speculums

If found to be infected with syphilis, women were detained in isolation wards or specialist hospitals, effectively quarantining them from the men they were thought to be polluting. From the 1860s onwards, some of these ‘lock hospitals’ also attempted to treat inmates’ moral lapses, hoping to prevent their return to prostitution after release.

A central principle of the Contagious Diseases Acts was the belief that syphilis arose in the bodies of women, especially those of immoral character. Syphilis and other venereal diseases were for many years personified as women who, out to tempt their male victims, should be avoided.

Gallery: twentieth-century depictions of syphilis and other venereal diseases

Yet anyone could see that prostitutes – or even ordinary women – weren’t the only carriers of syphilis. On the same day A.G. arrived at hospital, an educated, married woman in her late 30s was also admitted. Identified by the initials A.P., she struggled to hold a cup of tea, spoke in a “deranged” fashion and endured a persistent ache in her head. Seven years previously she had developed a large coin-shaped sore on her tongue after catching syphilis from her husband.

V0010166 Woman with diseased tongue and broken teeth, 1874.

An out-patient at London’s Royal Free Hospital, 1874.

Women like A.P., who were likely celibate before marriage, could hardly be accused of being a source of disease or of indulging in immoral acts. Yet the possibility that men could act as carriers was largely overlooked. The soldiers that the Contagious Diseases Acts were intended to protect were not monitored in the same way as local women; well-to-do men were not considered a threat, since even the most dissolute philanderer was not expected to infect as many people as a diseased prostitute. However, these established views were questioned when medicine turned its attention towards the issue of congenital, or hereditary, syphilis.

Syphilitic pregnant women had a high chance of miscarriage and A.P. lost several babies after she became infected. Even when a pregnancy reached full term, many ‘innocent’ victims of syphilis died days after birth. Those that survived lived with the stigma of physical deformities, which suggested they might be the product of an immoral liaison. Some also had mental abnormalities that hindered their development. Since some syphilitic babies were born to mothers with no visible symptoms, doctors in the 1800s started to consider whether men could be responsible for transmitting the disease to their children.

Gallery: congenital or hereditary syphilis

The situations of women like A.G. and A.P. led early feminist campaigners to focus on this issue of male responsibility. In 1869 social reformer Harriet Martineau launched the Ladies National Association with the support of Florence Nightingale. The organisation campaigned for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which its charismatic secretary Josephine Butler said contravened the constitutional rights of women.

“It is unjust to punish the sex who are the victims of a vice, and leave unpunished the sex who are the main cause, both of the vice and its dreaded consequences.”
The Ladies’ Appeal and Protest, 1870

The Ladies National Association directly challenged mainstream medicine and its subordination of women. Contrary to published medical statistics, it claimed the Acts had failed to control the spread of syphilis and it viewed prostitution not as a public health problem but as the logical result of a society that legitimised men’s sexual privilege.

“It is coming to be more and more a deadly fight on the part of us women for our bodies. If these doctors could be forced to keep their hateful hands off us, there would be an end to laws which protect vice, and to many other evils.”
Josephine Butler, writing in 1872

At the time, the fact that women – and middle-class Christian women at that – spoke publicly on sexual issues caused a sensation. Yet, while they fought for the rights of women like A.G., these early feminists still portrayed women we would now describe as sex workers as unfortunate victims, outcasts that should be “kept apart” from pure, respectable ladies. The campaigners’ ultimate aim was, in reality, two-fold: to nullify a law that applied “to one sex only” and to eradicate the “soul-devouring evil” of prostitution.

L0049215 A well-dressed client inspects the prostitutes at a brothel

Illustration from a French book describing prostitution, 1884.

“The cause of sexual disease is the subjection of women. Therefore to destroy the one we must destroy the other.”
Christabel Pankhurst, ‘A woman’s question’, published in The Suffragette, 1913

The Contagious Diseases Acts were finally repealed ten years after A.G. arrived at the Central London Sick Asylum, but the question of the true cause of syphilis and the fight for women’s rights still raged on almost four decades later. One of the leaders of the suffragette movement, Christabel Pankhurst, believed the “great evil” of sexual disease could only be addressed if women gained greater independence and men observed the same moral standards as virtuous women. Her stance was summed up in the campaign slogan “Votes for Women and Chastity for Men”.

Neither A.G. nor A.P. would live to see the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts or gain the right to vote. A.G. died just a week after admission. Her post mortem showed that parts of the membrane around her brain had turned to jelly. Within a few weeks her fellow patient lost the ability to speak. Three months later she died of the same cause as A.G., her education and respectability notwithstanding.