Limits of the Lab: Diagnosing "Latent Gonorrhea," 1872-1910


One of the most heatedly contested disease entities in turn-of-the-century medicine was "latent gonorrhea," a condition first discussed in an 1872 paper published by the German-born gynecologist Emil Noeggerath. Although none of the bacteriological discoveries of the next few decades—including the isolation of the gonococcus in 1879—provided much evidence of its existence, by the 1890s most Western physicians and medical scientists had nonetheless come to believe that latent gonorrhea was a real, diagnosable disease. While in the wake of its resolution, leading gynecologists contended that laboratory science had cleared up the controversy over latent gonorrhea, in reality it was through more "traditional" diagnostic methods (especially the taking of case histories) that Noeggerath's once-debatable theory gained acceptance. As such, this episode challenges the idea that turn-of-the-century Western medicine witnessed a "laboratory revolution," and that with the rise of bacteriology "the clinic" no longer informed the processes by which doctors defined and diagnosed disease.