The Suffering of Patients Diagnosed with “Neuro-syphillis”

Conference by Thomas Foth.
Thursday, 5 April 2018 - 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm
Contact information
Contact person: 
Gabrielle Fecteau
Registration required: 
Cost to attend: 
Free of charge
Event language: 
Event sponsors: 
L'école de service social

In 1939 the Ontario Hospital, Toronto, initiated a special fever unit for patients with neurosyphilis that was run exclusively by nurses. In this new treatment facility, patients were placed in a high-temperature cabinet in order to elevate their body temperature. They argued that traditional fever treatments, particularly malarial inoculation, required long hospitalizations for patients, subjected them to the infection of a second disease with consequent debilitation, and were not easily controlled. Furthermore, reactions could become severe enough to endanger patients’ lives. Psychiatrists advocated for this new form of fever treatment because patients did not necessarily require hospitalization. In addition, persons who had been infected with syphilis but were not yet showing any clinical symptoms could be treated with this therapy as a kind of preventive intervention.  This presentation is based on an in-depth analysis of three medical records from this fever unit and aims to better understand the roles and practices of the nurses running the unit.  As the nurses’ notes illustrate, the physical fever treatment led to many life-threatening consequences for the patients; although psychiatrists called them simply “nurse technicians,” nurses working on this ward had to manage highly complex care situations. The notes also highlight that not only did the nurses randomly combine different shock therapies, they also applied them in an unsystematic manner. Patients suffered under these “heroic treatments,” and were often described as completely helpless and disoriented. The notes also clearly indicate that the success of the “therapies” was based on the nurses’ perception of “positive” changes in patients’ behaviour,” meaning that patients better integrated into the asylum’s system of regulation.