Just before New Year's Eve, 1936, the United States declared war on venereal disease. The 'war room' was a Washington, D.C. conference attended by about a thousand physicians, public health workers, and government employees—including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The enemies were syphilis and gonorrhea. At the time of the conference, about 14% of the American population was infected with one or both of the sexually-transmitted diseases.
While gonorrhea certainly wasn't a pleasant disease to catch in 1936, syphilis was by far the more dangerous of the two—and was much more of a burden on the American people. Left untreated, the disease caused blindness, disfigurement that left sufferers unable to work, and, in the disease's final stages, insanity. One physician at the conference estimated that up to two thirds of African Americans in Virginia's state-run mental asylums were suffering from late-stage neurosyphilis—meaning that their conditions, and the cost of their care, could have been prevented with early treatment.
In the 1930s, syphilis treatment primarily relied on the early antibiotic Salvarsan, which included arsenic and was not very reliable in syphilis's later stages. It wasn't until 1947 that the much more effective penicillin began to be used in syphilis treatment—a development that made the Tuskeegee Institute's refusal to treat infected black men involved in their long-running syphilis study even more callous.
Another vicious aspect of syphilis was the pathogen's ability to be transmitted from mother to child, meaning that—in the most morally outrageous example tossed around—a husband's one-time dalliance with an infected prostitute could doom his wife and all their future children to painful, short lives marred by the disease's shameful stigma. Improving social outreach and diminishing the stigma, conference attendees agreed, could mean saving hundreds of thousands of innocent children's sight and even lives.
The conference concluded with a call to amend the Social Security Act of 1935 to earmark $25 million annually for research, subsidized treatment, and public health education related to syphilis and gonorrhea. One crucial part of the campaign that followed: a barrage of bold, frank posters created by WPA artists. Throughout, the posters emphasize the importance of early treatment—and work to dispel stigma while still playing on viewers' consciences. We've collected some of our favorites, preserved by the Library of Congress, below.