Volume 6, Issue 2, December 2018, Page: 67-80
The Death of William Leschallas, Illustrating Drawbacks to Official Documents and Skeletal Data to Estimate Prevalence for Syphilis or Cancer in 19th Century London
Samuel Mark, Department of Liberal Studies, Texas A&M University Galveston Campus, Galveston, USA
Received: Nov. 24, 2018;       Accepted: Dec. 17, 2018;       Published: Jan. 17, 2019
DOI: 10.11648/j.ija.20180602.12      View  664      Downloads  73
The combination of documentary evidence with skeletal analysis can reveal much about the prevalence of a condition from past times. Both types of evidence, however, have limitations. Using these data Cox published a study in 1996 of nearly 1,000 skeletons, dating from the 1700s to the 1850s, from Christ Church, Spitalfields in east London. Only two skeletons were reported to have lesions consistent with syphilis or 0.2% of this population, and a review of deaths caused by syphilis listed in bills of mortality for London gave a mortality rate of less than 0.5% for syphilis. Since both data sets are roughly consistent they appear to support Cox’s interpretation. Nevertheless, a restudy of William Leschallas’ cranium raised the first doubt to this low rate in this population. Furthermore, the Royal Commission on Venereal Disease stated in 1916 that the rate of congenital and acquired syphilis was not less than 10% of the population in cities. The aim of this study is to understand such discrepancies. This was done by re-examining Leschallas’ cranium and other skeletal data cited by Cox and Cox et al., as well as official documents and medical, legal, and religious texts to better estimate the prevalence of syphilis in 19th-century England. As a result, a review of these documents not only supports a prevalence of at least 10% for syphilis in early 20th-century London, but in the first half of the 19th century possibly over 50% of adult males believed they were infected with syphilis. Such a high perceived prevalence along with the social stigma of being infected with syphilis, and to a lesser extent cancers, led to the omission of syphilis from official documents. In regards to the lesions in Leschallas’ cranium diagnosed as trauma from gunshot wounds, all but one are consistent with syphilis, and possibly one lesion may be cancerous, allowing for the possibility that others in this skeletal population were also misdiagnosed, especially considering there was considerable post-mortem damage to many skeletons. Moreover, it has been estimated that only 1% to 20% of individuals suffering from syphilis will develop skeletal lesions, raising the possibility that syphilis was underestimated in this skeletal population. Thus, a better understanding of stigmas in past societies can be a valuable tool in evaluating the validity of documentary evidence and as an influence in estimating the prevalence of such a condition.
Cancer, Syphilis, Interpreting Gunshot Wounds in Cranium, Official Documents
To cite this article
Samuel Mark, The Death of William Leschallas, Illustrating Drawbacks to Official Documents and Skeletal Data to Estimate Prevalence for Syphilis or Cancer in 19th Century London, International Journal of Archaeology. Vol. 6, No. 2, 2018, pp. 67-80. doi: 10.11648/j.ija.20180602.12
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