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  • The Physician and the Fallen Woman:Medicalizing Prostitution in the Polish Lands
  • Keely Stauter-Halsted (bio)

A sudden spike in syphilis contamination set off a public health alarm in early twentieth-century Lwów.1 Not only had the rate of infection multiplied fourfold between 1901 and 1903, but, even more frighteningly, the town's elite adolescents had been struck down in disproportionate numbers.2 The municipal health commission, convinced that the poor women selling sex on city streets represented the primary vector of venereal infection, tightened medical regulations for prostitutes. The commission directed police physicians to "expand their sphere of activity and their power such that all means are used to guarantee the examination of every prostitute—especially those who avoid regulation and those who have been recently removed from control."3 The irony of charging physicians to impose medical inspections on women not registered with police or who might not self-identify as prostitutes was seemingly lost on the report's authors. Instead, authorities issued a series of new regulations that empowered police doctors to treat all female factory workers, seamstresses, household servants, waitresses, and other members of the urban poor as potential sex workers and to bring as many as possible under their regulatory gaze.

As Lwów grew from a provincial outpost of the Habsburg Monarchy to the booming capital of the self-governing Galician crownland in the last third of the nineteenth century, these new health directives had important [End Page 270] ramifications for how the majority Polish-speaking bourgeois residents of the city perceived the impoverished peasant women flocking through their city's gates.4 Polish society had long viewed its peasant communities as the repository of a moral innocence that provided much of the foundation for the nation's self-identity, a conception that grew more pronounced after the demise of the Polish state in the late eighteenth century.5 Once peasants were emancipated from serfdom in the middle of the nineteenth century and began migrating to urban centers, however, upper-class Polish speakers faced a challenge to their earlier conceptions of peasant virtue. Medical experts widely assumed that the vast majority of urban prostitutes were migrants from surrounding villages who found themselves out of work after arriving in the city.6 How then could Polish culture maintain its assumptions about the moral innocence of country folk while at the same time paint the women recently arrived from the countryside with the brush of sexual licentiousness?7

This article explores the implications of broadening medical authority over prostitutes in the Polish lands at the turn of the twentieth century, focusing on the uneasy symbiosis between physicians and the body of the prostitute in the former's quest for heightened power and social status. Armed with an increased mandate in the fight against the venereal plague, doctors were able to leverage their access to the bodies of urban prostitutes and gain greater social status in the complicated milieu of partitioned Poland. At the same time, the newfound invasive capabilities of the medical profession helped to define all working-class women and female migrants as [End Page 271] sexually promiscuous, conflating poverty and prostitution into a single social category. This dynamic reflected a shift in elite attitudes about sexuality and poverty in early twentieth-century Polish-speaking society.

Polish Medicine between Empire and Nation

The Polish medical profession faced an extended crisis in the years following the partitions of the Polish Republic in the late eighteenth century. The final destruction of the Polish state in 1795 and its territorial division among the Habsburg, Prussian, and Russian Empires led to the closing of most Polish-language medical schools. Aspiring physicians traveled abroad for professional training and faced constrained employment opportunities upon their return to Polish soil.8 As occupying authorities extended systems of police-controlled prostitution to the newly acquired Polish lands, many Polish-speaking medical specialists turned to the machinery of regulation to find their professional niches. The system of "tolerated" prostitution formalized in the Habsburg lands in 1850 and in the Russian Empire in 1843 required women who sold sex to be inscribed into police registries and to report for biweekly medical examinations.9...


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pp. 270-290
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