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Diseases of the skin, being highly visible, are often highly stigmatized. Hansen's disease or leprosy—arguably the most stigmatized disease in history—was extremely rare in France by the start of the 19th century, but doctors came into contact with it in French colonies in the Antilles and East Asia.1 It was believed—sometimes erroneously, sometimes not—that most skin conditions were highly contagious. From about 1801, the isolated Hôpital Saint-Louis on the outskirts of Paris was dedicated to patients suffering from all manner of dermatological conditions, including those caused by venereal disease.2 

One extremely common 19th-century affliction, scabies (known at the time as la gale or "the itch"), caused a medial scandal when, in 1812, Jean Chrysanthe Galés claimed to have discovered microscopic mites inhabiting the sores of scabies patients. However, drawings of the insects Galés claimed to have seen looked suspiciously like common flour mites. It was not until 1835 that Simon François Renucci demonstrated that scabies is indeed caused by parasitic mites—though significant doubt remains as to whether Galés had truly found them first.3

Ointments made from mercury and mercuric compounds were applied both cosmetically and medicinally in the 19th century, as mercury could lighten the skin and reduce the appearance of blemishes, especially of the characteristic sores caused by syphilis. Some neurological symptoms of mercury poisoning, like tremors and dementia, mimic those of neurosyphilis, and so were attributed to the disease instead of the 'cure.'4 Syphilis was understood at the time as a largely dermatological condition, with no impact on the nervous system. That began to change late in the 19th century, when Jean Alfred Fournier argued (correctly) that tertiary syphilis was the underlying cause of the neurological conditions then called 'locomotor ataxia' and tabes dorsalis—contrary to the opinion of many contemporary neurologists and alienists, including Charcot.5


  1. Edmond, Leprosy and Empire, 82-85, 104-6; see also Gossow & Tracy, "Stigma and the Leprosy Phenomenon."
  2. Ghesquier, "A Gallic Affair," 32; Androutsos, "Le fondateur de syphilographie," 82; Crissey, Parish, and Shelley, Dermatology and Syphilology, 42.
  3. Ghesquier, "A Gallic Affair"; Crissey, Parish, and Holubar, Historical Atlas, 24.
  4. Swiderski, Quicksilver, 7-8, 97-112; Crissey et al., Dermatology and Syphilology, 362-6.
  5. Androutsos, "Le fondateur" 83-4; Oriel, Scars of Venus, 53-56. Also see the Neurology section of this exhibit.
  6. Ghesquier, "A Gallic Affair," 48; Crissey, Parish, and Holubar, Historical Atlas, 24; Crissey et al., Dermatology and Syphilology, 68-71. It should also be noted that scabies mites had actually first been observed in 1687, but the limited availability of good microscopes during the 18th century meant they had to be 'rediscovered' in the 19th.
  7. Edmond, Leprosy and Empire, 67.
  8. Several cases are described in Schick, "Diaplacental Infection of the Foetus."


    • Androutsos, Georges and Lazaros Vladimiros. "Le foundateur de syphilographie Alfred Fournier (1832-1914) et sa lutte contre la syphilis." Histoire de l'Andrologie 17.1 (2007): 80-87.
    • Crissey, John Thorne; Lawrence Charles Parish; and Karl Holubar. Historical Atlas of Dermatology and Dermatologists. The Parthenon Publishing Group, 2002.
    • Crissey, John Thorne; Lawrence Charles Parish; and Walter B. Shelley. The Dermatology and Syphilology of the Nineteenth Century. Praeger, 1981.
    • Edmond, Rod. Leprosy and Empire: A Medical and Cultural History. Cambridge University Press, 2006. Online publication 2009.DOI:10.1017/CBO9780511497285.
    • Ghesquier, Danièle, "A Gallic Affair: The Case of the missing Itch-Mite in French Medicine in the early Nineteenth Century." Medical History 43 (1999): 26-54. DOI: 10.1017/S002572730006470X.
    • Gussow, Zachary and George S. Tracy. "Stigma and the Leprosy Phenomenon: The Social History of a Disease in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries." Bulletin of the History of Medicine 44.5 (1970): 425-449.
    • Oriel, David J. The Scars of Venus: A History of Venereology. Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.
    • Schick, Béla. "Diaplacental Infection of the Foetus with the Virus of German Measles Despite Immunity of the Mother: Analogous Observations in Smallpox." Acta Paediatrica, 1949. DOI: 10.1111/j.1651-2227.1949.tb17908.x.
    • Swiderski, Richard M. Quicksilver: A History of the Use, Lore, and Effects of Mercury. McFarland & Company, 2008.