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April 2013

The Role of Syphilis in the Establishment of the Specialty of Dermatology

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Department of Dermatology, St Louis University, St Louis, Missouri.

JAMA Dermatol. 2013;149(4):426. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2013.3159

While today the term “dermatologist” may conjure up images of celebrities and Botox, the field's early history is much less glamorous. In fact, venereal diseases, especially syphilis, figure prominently in the field's development as distinct from general medicine. Although the discussion of venereal disease was considered clandestine, the public health risks of syphilis in the late 1800s demanded attention. Dermatologists rose to the task of caring for these underserved patients, who were cloaked with a “stigma of disrepute.”1 This expertise in syphilis, a disease to be “mentioned in whispers only”1(p519) actually helped to establish dermatology as a legitimate medical specialty.

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