Before Tuskegee: Public Health and Venereal Disease in Hot Springs, Arkansas

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During the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, the American South was home to one of the world's most renowned centers for the treatment of syphilis. Throughout this era, tens of thousands of syphilitic men and women sought treatment for their illnesses by traveling to the central Arkansas city of Hot Springs, whose near-boiling waters were thought to possess a therapeutic power capable of restoring the venereally-afflicted to health. Seeking to tap into its reputation as the “Mecca of the American Syphilitic,” in 1921 the United States Public Health Service (PHS) selected Hot Springs as the site of the country's first federally-operated VD clinic. Over the course of the next two decades, more than 60,000 venereal health-seekers (black as well as white, male as well as female) received free treatment for syphilis and/or gonorrhea at this model PHS facility, and their experiences provide new insights into the class-based, racial, and gendered aspects of the federal government's early twentieth-century public health work. Opened ten years before the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932-1972) began, the story of the Hot Springs clinic illustrates how forcefully eugenics pervaded the PHS' campaigns against syphilis and gonorrhea.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSouthern Spaces
Publication statusPublished - Oct 31 2017


  • Venereal Disease
  • Public Health
  • Hot Springs, Arkansas
  • Eugenics
  • Tuskegee Syphilis Study

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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