- Infection of the Innocents: Wet Nurses, Infants, and Syphilis in France, 1780–1900 by Joan Sherwood
Joan Sherwood opens her book—the latest in a series in the History of Medicine, Health, and Society—with an appalling anecdote: in 1855, an infant later found to have congenital syphilis was placed with a wet nurse. Upon diagnosis, the family’s physician suggested treating the infant with mercury administered through the nurse’s breastmilk. When she understandably refused to cooperate, the infant’s parents found another healthy wet nurse, and without explaining the reason, asked her to take liquid and pills (containing mercury) to treat the child. The nurse, soon infected herself, discovered the source of her disease and demanded recompense, which the family refused to provide. She sued, and while the family was found guilty of wrongdoing, the doctor was acquitted, since “her condition was not necessarily the result of the doctor’s reticence” (5). The court awarded the plaintiff half the damages she sought.
Sherwood began her fascinating and unsettling book with this story, because it “draws together the main themes of this book: the long-standing use of mercury in the treatment of syphilis and congenital syphilis, the highly contagious nature of congenital syphilis, the fate of healthy wet nurses who were hired to nurse infants with the disease, the social and ethical implications of this practice, and the legal consequences for families and doctors when infected women sued for damages” (5). Her story begins in eighteenth-century Paris, with the establishment of Vaugirard hospital, specializing in the treatment of infants with congenital syphilis. The hospital’s setting (in the salubrious suburbs), its small scale, and its dedication to patients’ recovery rather than their salvation reflected Enlightenment ideals. The ill—the infected babies and their nourrices —would be treated according to scientific rather than religious principles. At Vaugirard, doctors would search to cure congenital syphilis under rational and controlled conditions.
Unfortunately, scientific principles led the doctors affiliated with Vaugirard to treat both the infants and their nurses with mercury, the generally accepted treatment for syphilis— shockingly, as Sherwood indicates, until the twentieth century, despite skepticism about its efficacy at a much earlier date. The goal was to find an optimal method of transmitting the “healing” properties of this debilitating poison to infants in doses large enough to be effective, yet small enough not to be lethal. In this effort, the wet nurses became, in terminology borrowed from Spanish physician Ruiz de Luzuriaga, “instrumentos animados”—living tools through which medication was transmitted to infected babies. Measuring the treatment’s effectiveness was difficult, since many infants at Vaugirard suffered from other ailments (such as thrush) that made nursing impossible, while others perished from diseases other than syphilis. But despite the optimistic claims of the hospital’s lead physician, François Doublet, the poverty commission established by the Constituent Assembly in the early years of the French Revolution determined in 1790 that the cost of the Vaugirard hospital outweighed any potential benefits. [End Page 806]
The first four chapters of the book deal with the experiments carried out at Vaugirard. Beginning with a detailed analysis of the history of mercury as a putative cure for syphilis, Sherwood moves to a discussion of Vaugirard as an exemplary “Enlightened” hospital, the condition of and consequences for the infants treated, and the treatment of its wet nurses. Historians will not be surprised to learn that a heavy dose of moralizing accompanied the treatment of the infected wet nurses, nor that the “Enlightened” doctors caring for them were more interested in testing the effectiveness of often cruel—or, as Sherwood calls them, heroic—courses of treatment. Still, she is careful in tone, recognizing the genuine desire of these doctors to bring an end to the scourge of syphilis. The exhaustive discussion of the symptoms experienced by the infants and wet nurses is probably most useful to the historian of medicine; the biographical information Sherwood provides on both is of value to...