The Daily Dose: Vampires and VD

Welcome to Literary Medicine’s Daily Dose (Companion to the Fiction Reboot). The following excerpt is from research (ongoing) into a syphilitic reading of Dracula. Below I begin parsing some of the unusual history of degeneration and disease. Tune in tomorrow for more from the Fiction Reboot!


Vampiric and Syphilitic Contagion

Van Helsing warns that the vampire is not a single foe but a potential army: “[T]o fail here,” he tells the Harkers, “is not mere life or death. It is that we become as him, that we henceforward become foul things of the night like him, without heart or conscience, preying on […] those we love best” (Stoker 243). The vampire’s ability not only to absorb but to transmit life, or rather, to transfer un-life, means that contagion and reproduction are intrinsically linked. Stephen Arata considers this the threat of deracination and reverse colonization, wherein “the ‘civilized’ world is on the point of being colonized by ‘primitive’ forces” (Arata 623). But in the case of venereal disease, the primitive forces are bacterium, spread through sexual contact and through human generation. The link between syphilis and birth had been discovered as early as the 16th century (about 100 years after the initial European outbreak), but as debates began to focus on parental responsibility and social reform, the diseased infant became politically significant. Partly due to better diagnostics and the separation of syphilitic symptomology from gonorrhea, the latter part of the 19th century saw an explosion of syphilis cases, resulting in problematic control of contagion (and even more problematic legislation). Thus, though syphilis was a disease unto itself, it became a metaphor for disease by the fin de siècle—a “trope for social and cultural degeneration” (Smith 95). It would also become a battle ground over sexual violation, women’s rights and reproductive health.

In the 1860s, the Contagious Disease Acts sanctioned forced medical examination of women rumored to be prostitutes. These women (usually of the working class) were considered solely responsible for the spread of the contagion—an idea that had not changed much since the first outbreak in 1494 (Diday 2). Activist Josephine Butler successfully lead the charge to repeal the Acts in 1886 by representing the prostitute as the victim and the male client as the villain (Smith 97). Butler uses quotes from prostitutes that re-figure their role and responsibility: “To please a man I did wrong first, then I was flung about from man to man. Men police lay hands on us. But men we are examined, handled, doctored. In the hospital it is a man again who makes prayer and reads the Bible for us. We are had up before magistrates who are men, and we never get out of the hands of men till we die” (Butler, “The Garrison of Kent,” Sheild. 9 May 1870. Qtd. in Smith, 97). The medical treatment—mercury, usually, and sometimes iodine—was administered in various ways: by mouth, by unction (rubbed on the skin), by fumigation and by hypodermic syringe (Cooper 321-24). Butler, in recording the complaints of prostitutes, suggest that the medical cure was, itself, tantamount to a kind of rape “legitimiz[ing] a cruel and irrational sexual violation, one that inflicted pain and mutilation on women” (Bulter, letter to Joseph Edmonson 1872, Qtd. in Smith 98). Butler re-creates the prostitute in these narratives as an innocent victim of male lust and perverse doctors—and echoes of this rhetoric are present also in the “cure” of Dracula’s vampire infection. Lucy Westenra’s treatment includes opiates, also given to the syphilis sufferer and mixed with other medicines; she is surrounded by garlic flowers, while the syphilis patient undergoes fumigation treatments. Ultimately, however, the cure for Lucy’s vampirism is the needle and the stake.


While I am still working out the details of this interesting project, you can hear a podcast concerning it at Sick City Talks (interview by Richard Barnett, London, UK). I will also include a list of useful sources, though this is by no means exhaustive. Look for more on this project to come; I will be presenting it at the 10th Global Conference on Monsters and the Monstrous, Oxford, UK.


Arata, Stephen D. The Occidental Tourist: “Dracula” and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization Victorian Studies, 33. 4 (Summer, 1990), pp. 621-645

Brothers, Abram. Infantile Mortality During Child-Birth and its Prevention. Philidelphia: P Blakiston, Son and Co., 1896. Reprint.

Carrick, John Donald. The Laird of Logan; or, Wit of the West: being a collection of anecdotes, jests and comic tales. [First-second series], Volume 1 London, 1835, 120. Google eBooks. Accessed 6/12/2012.

Cooper, Alfred. Syphilis and Pseudo-Syphilis. London: JA Churchill, 1884. Reprint.

Diday, Charles Joseph Paul Edouard. A Treatise on Syphilis in New-Born Children and Infants at the Breast. Trans. G. Whitley, M.D. [London] New York, [1859] 1883. Reprint.

Halberstam, Judith “Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Victorian Studies, 36:3. Victorian Sexualities (Spring, 1993), pp. 333-352.

“On Monsters,” The Spectator, Volume 68: March 26, 1892. Google eBooks. Accessed 6/12/2012.

Paré, Ambroise. On Monsters and Marvels. Trans. Janis Pllister. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982.

Pinkerton, John. A general collection of the best and most interesting voyages and travels in all parts of the world. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1809. Google eBooks. Accessed 6/10/2012.

Smith, Andrew. Victorian Demons: Medicine, Masculinity and the Gothic at the Fin de Siècle. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.

Spongeberg, Mary. Feminizing Venereal Disease: The Body of the Prostitute in Nineteenth- Century Medical Discourse. Baskingstoke: MacMillian, 1997.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Ed. John Paul Riquelme. Boston: Bedford St. Martin Press, 2002.

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