Sean Scally

In late 1914, during the early months of the First World War, the threat posed by venereal disease among British forces had already become clear to the National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases (NCCVD). Explicating this concern, the National Council had established a military sub-committee in November 1914, and by February of the following year had already delivered cautionary lectures about sexual hygiene to approximately 50,000 servicemen. Throughout the conflict, this committee utilised propagandistic methods including pamphlets, lectures, and early examples of medical films in an attempt to negate the spread of gonorrhoea and syphilis among British servicemen and civilians.

Central to this campaign was a moralistic approach which called upon British men’s better judgement and self-control, placing patriotism and the national interest above servicemen’s baser sexual appetites. Concomitant to this, since its inception in November 1914, the NCCVD had aligned itself with the eugenics movement in Britain and shared several influential members with the Eugenics Education Society (EES). As the number of cases of sexually transmitted diseases among servicemen rose during the war, the efforts of the NCCVD began to reflect contemporary eugenic attitudes about desirable and undesirable manliness, and the preservation of eugenically valuable British servicemen. Indeed, as outlined by one NCCVD military lecture, “preventing all wastage in the Army” through sexual self-control was key to British victory.

“Don’t Take a Chance”, a booklet created by the YMCA warning about the dangers of venereal disease during World War I, 1918, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, PNW04996

As Laura Doan, Bridget Towers, and others have pointed out, British anti-VD propaganda frequently appealed to contemporary tropes of masculine strength and heterosexual identity. The records of the NCCVD military sub-committee – housed at the Wellcome Library Archives and Manuscript Collection – highlight their moralistic concern over VD in the military in a number of ways, and also allude to an overtly eugenic model of male desirability. In a sample lecture which was to be used as a basis for instructors during the course of the war, the NCCVD outlined that “if you wish to be a strong man and to rule others, you must first learn to rule and restrain yourself. Such restraint is not weakness but strength.” Similarly, lectures often equated male strength with the avoidance of sexual temptation and simultaneously conflated male weakness with sexual promiscuity. For example, servicemen were reminded that “self-indulgence of any kind is not manly; and, if in seeking pleasure for yourself, you do harm to anyone else, especially a woman, you are then acting in an unmanly way.”

Continuing in this vein, and to little surprise, NCCVD military propaganda also reduced women to mere stereotypes in their efforts to stem the spread of venereal disease among servicemen. As outlined in pamphlets and lectures, women sought either to entrap and infect unwitting males, or served as the innocent victims of morally weak men. “Remember,” one lecture warned, “that every sexual act is committed either with an innocent woman or one who is not innocent.” In “A Cause of Military Inefficiency,” a booklet on STIs that was distributed to British soldiers, Lord Kitchener himself conceded that the best way for servicemen to avoid contracting VD from women was simply to “stay out of their way altogether.”

Further to this, many figures operating under the auspices of the NCCVD during the First World War, including Sybil Gotto, Major Leonard Darwin, Dr. James Alexander Lindsay, and Dr. Caleb W. Saleeby among others, were closely aligned with the Eugenics Education Society and associated organisations. Reflecting this eugenic association, NCCVD military sub-committee propaganda often reiterated men’s future roles as viable husbands and fathers and emphasised that consorting with women during wartime would endanger the future health of their families. One lecture warned that “the success of marriage, both in happiness and children, will depend on previous self-control.” The notion of securing the quality of future populations – a basic tenant of eugenic thinking – was also frequently invoked within NCCVD lectures. One such talk emphasised that “the presence of these diseases is a continuous disaster to the Nation; they are almost as ruinous to the nation as war itself.” Writing in a NCCVD pamphlet titled “The Duty of Knowledge” in 1917, suffragist Maude Royden further reflected the gravity of this eugenic outlook, emphasising that “the danger to the race, from both syphilis and gonorrhoea, is of the gravest character.”

For hard-line supporters of eugenics, this issue was more serious still. Writing in The Eugenics Review in October 1918, Dr. James Alexander Lindsay – then Secretary of the Belfast Eugenics Society and founder of the NCCVD branch in that city  – warned that “as an inevitable concomitant of war” venereal disease “[constituted] one of its most serious dysgenic factors.” Thus, from a eugenic standpoint, the manliest responsibility of all was for servicemen to avoid sexual contact completely, so as to uphold the future strength of the race.

In framing sexually healthy servicemen as eugenically valuable decision-makers and appointing them at the vanguard of national preservation efforts, NCCVD moral instruction consciously ascribed to contemporary eugenic attitudes and tropes. Desirable masculinity was frequently conflated with men’s ability to produce healthy families within NCCVD propaganda, which further highlights the centrality of gender in eugenic thinking during the early twentieth century, a connection made all the more palpable considering the close involvement of eugenic promotors within the NCCVD. Examining allusions to eugenic philosophy within servicemen’s sexual health discourse in WWI informs our understanding of eugenics in early-twentieth-century Britain, as well as our understandings of masculinity and sexual health during the First World War.

Sean Scally is a PhD candidate in Transnational and Comparative History at Central Michigan University. His research interests are gender history and history of medicine in Britain and the US. Sean is currently working on a dissertation project which focuses on the intersection of masculinity and eugenics in the US and Britain during the early twentieth century. He tweets from @SM_Scally

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