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February 21, 1996

Chicago's War on Syphilis, 1937-1940: The Times, the Trib, and the Clap Doctor

Author Affiliations

Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center Lubbock

JAMA. 1996;275(7):568. doi:10.1001/jama.1996.03530310074042

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In Chicago's War on Syphilis Suzanne Poirier has produced a detailed minibiography of Dr Ben L. Reitman of Chicago spanning the years of 1937 through 1940. (However, for a fuller picture of Dr Reitman, The Damndest Radical by Roger A. Bruns is recommended.) Professor Poirier alludes to Chicago's syphilis control efforts as a "microcosm" of the national effort to control venereal diseases in the 1930s, without much comparison data from the rest of the United States.

Poirier paints a picture of a lone crusader waging a "truth in advertising" campaign against city and federal government bureaucrats and the members of the Chicago Medical Society. Among other actions, he undertook an experimental distribution of mercury ointment to prostitutes and susceptible men and delivered numerous provocative speeches at the risk of his career. The battle was actually against the public's view that any venereal disease was equated with immoral behavior. The inability