In The Frankenstein Chronicles, Inspector John Marlott (Sean Bean) suffered from syphilis and unknowingly passed it on to his wife who, along with their three-month-old child, died. Marlott blamed himself for their death which leads to the obvious question if it was the syphilis that caused the wife’s and child’s death. Does syphilis inevitably cause death? How fast? Is it especially fatal to pregnant women?
Mulling the question in my head, I recalled the Meryl Streep film, Florence Foster Jenkins, which was based on the biography of a New York socialite who liked to sing but did not have the voice for the performances that she loved to give. Jenkins had syphilis, I remembered. But didn’t she die when she was already an old woman?
Florence Foster Jenkins was born in 1868 and contracted syphilis from her husband at age 18. She and her husband eventually separated although no divorce was ever documented. In her early 40’s, she met actor St. Clair Bayfield (played by Hugh Grant in the film) who became her “husband” and manager. Because she was suffering from syphilis, she and Bayfield did not share the same bed. They did not even live in the same house. Bayfield had an apartment where he kept a mistress.
To treat her syphilis, Jenkins was given the usual mercury and arsenic by her doctors. Penicillin as a treatment for syphilis would not become available to the public until 1942. By then, Jenkins’s syphilis was in the tertiary stage and would have been unresponsive to penicillin. She died of heart attack at age 76 in 1944.
Another biopic and Meryl Streep starrer was Out of Africa. Karen Blixen, on whose memoir the 1985 film directed by Sidney Pollack was based, contracted syphilis from her husband in 1915 at age 30 and died in 1962 at age 77. Like Jenkins, she took mercury and arsenic but no penicillin treatment either.
I did a little Googling.
According to the CDC website untreated syphilis will continue to be contagious, but:
Most people with untreated syphilis do not develop tertiary syphilis. However, when it does happen it can affect many different organ systems. These include the heart and blood vessels, and the brain and nervous system. Tertiary syphilis is very serious and would occur 10–30 years after your infection began. In tertiary syphilis, the disease damages your internal organs and can result in death.
So, no, Inspector Marlott. Your guilt is misplaced. It is more likely that complications resulting from childbirth killed your wife and child. Or, perhaps, medieval medical practices.
Syphilis can stay in the body for a long, long time and be a threat to sexual partners but unless it reaches the tertiary level, a person suffering from syphilis can live to a ripe old age.