Review: No Magic Bullet

book cover No Magic Bullet

No Magic Bullet

Allan M Brandt’s “No Magic Bullet: a social history of venereal disease in the United States since 1880” was first published in 1985. A new edition came just two years later, I have to assume that is because its topic was changing so quickly with AIDS becoming common knowledge. I imagine Brandt wanted a do over on what he had written about AIDS in the first edition’s introduction.

Very early in the first chapter Brandt explains that doctors at first thought that women were not affected by gonorrhea.  I was bothered by this not because I doubted it was true but because just a few pages earlier, in the introduction, Brandt wrote that AIDS was a disease of gay men without questioning what was considered true at the time. At the very least he should have mentioned that at one time gonorrhea had been considered the problem of only one gender. Why study history if we don’t use it to form questions about the present? Even in the introduction to the 1987 edition, when it was well known that there were multiple modes of transmission, he failed to mention the failure in physician’s reasoning in assuming venereal disease, any disease, is limited by gender by anything other than ease of infection. Did Brandt miss the similarity of the failed assumptions about gonorrhea and AIDS?  Did he simply choose not to mention it? I have to believe that if he had noticed it he would have mentioned it even if only to dismiss it as meaningless.

Brandt looked at only two parts of society in this “social history”. One made up of military and public health officials and the other made up of that large and vocal subset of the leisure class that makes everyone else’s behaviour their business, moralists. The military and public health professionals followed the science but often were forced to bow to pressure from the moralists.

The moralists clamor for abstinence before during and after World War I. They continued to clamor for abstinence before during and after WWII. They are still at it. Then, as now, they are only concerned with their version of morality and about other people’s behaviour, not their own. Brandt manages to overlook the opinions of working people, business men and women, minorities in regard to venereal disease. I was surprised that the book was from the 1980s and not the 1950s. People besides the powerful had their agency recognized in the 1960s, why not here?
Sometimes I feel I should make allowances for works of history that are as old as this, twenty eight years since the new edition, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Histories on on narrow topics like this are few and far between. Unlike books about Lincoln or major wars there is not a new volume on the history of VD being published every few months. A search of World Cat for the subject “Sexually Transmitted Diseases United States History” turns up only a few dissertations, several government publications that look like primary sources and Alexandrea Lord’s 2009 book “Condom Nation” which looks at government sponsored sex education from World War II to the present. Unfortunately this could be the go to book on social attitudes about VD for many more years. I hope a student interested in the subject gets creative in their readings and are able to find more than the two viewpoints Brandt offers on the subject.

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Filed under Book review, History, Medical History, Social History

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