Wednesday’s Book Review: “Sex, Sin, and Science”

Sex, Sin, and ScienceSex, Sin, and Science: A History of Syphilis in America. By John Parascandola. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2008.

John Parascandola, former historian of the Public Health Service, and a veteran of several other public historian positions in the federal government, received the George Pendleton Prize for 2009 for this book, and the award was well deserved. Sex, Sin, and Science: A History of Syphilis in America, published by Praeger of the Greenwood Publishing Group, is a seminal work. In it the author presents a fascinating account of how social and cultural factors, in addition to medical ones, helped to shape the way we understand and react to diseases, especially one so publicly charged as syphilis.

In this example—because of its association with sexual promiscuity—social, cultural, moral, and religious factors loom large in its history. As Parascandola shows, syphilis as a disease illustrates the ways in which non-medical factors influence our views of a disease and our reaction to it. He offers a fascinating perspective on the tendency to focus blame for the spread of a disease on particular marginalized groups in America.

Parascandola also discusses the delicate balance between protecting the rights of individuals and furthering the health of the public. These are manifest in numerous ways; right to privacy versus public awareness are central to this concern but are complicated by the hesitancy of Americans to discuss venereal disease openly because it also involves a discussion of sex.

Sex, Sin, and Science: A History of Syphilis in America is a valuable and even-handed work by a veteran scholar of medicine that should help inform public policy.

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