This is a guest post by Robert Sparkes.1
I have a few points regarding Bertie and the possible infection of syphilis. In the 18th and 19th centuries, syphilis was widespread in London, Paris and other European cities. It was incurable. Wikipedia: History of Syphilis refers to studies in 2014 and 2020 estimated that in the 18th and 19th centuries that about 10-20% of the population of London had syphilis. If someone like Bertie had sex with about 25 people per year, and 5 of these were different prostitutes. If each of these prostitutes had 100 previous encounters, then the total pool of infected people that someone like Bertie encountered is over 500. This assumes that there was no overlap in counting, but my estimation is conservative. He did visit many cities, which increased the number of encounters and varieties of the disease.
Over the first eight years of his marriage, the total is roughly 4000. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that Bertie had syphilis. And it is also likely that he was an asymptomatic transmitter of the disease since he displayed no symptoms. His wife Alexandra had many symptoms of the disease not easily identified by doctors. Syphilis is often referred to as the “great pretender” for its variety of symptoms.2 For example, in one sufferer, the disease might attack the nose bone, while in another, it might attack the knee or the ankle, or the ears, or the skull. As a way to illustrate the extent of the disease, there was a no nose club for those who lost their nose.
On 10 April, Dr Author Farre, a nationally renowned obstetric physician3, had a long and serious talk with Bertie. Dimond writes that Dr Farre considered this was a very satisfactory conversation, and there were to be no more children.4 While the whole conversation is not known, Bertie would likely have been advised about the transmission of syphilis and the need to refrain. However, Bertie continued to engage in sexual relationships with others, but later, he would have minimized the problem by focusing on his three mistresses.
Alexandra was likely advised by her doctors to stop having children and remove herself from the marriage bed. She was also advised on how the disease is transmitted. And the doctors knew the end stages of the disease when the bacteria would come out of its dormancy in about 20 to 30 years. She would then have a period of personality changes, depression, dementia and finally, death.5 They would have advised her to keep one of her daughters at home to care for her.
Duff6 notices that her attitude shifted from one of gaiety to being more cynical in 1893, then to periods of depression beginning in 18987, to periods of short-term memory loss8, and then to a major physical and mental breakdown in 1915.9 She did eventually die in 1925 of heart failure and dementia.10 Alexandra described the experience of the bacteria attacking her brain as an everlasting pain and noises in her “wretched” head.11
So, the arc of late-stage syphilis began in the early 1890s, became worse during her reign and brought her down in 1915 until her death in 1925. Dealing with her lameness in 1866, Alexandra learned to walk without walking sticks, dance with the support of a dance partner and skate. With Montagu, she found a dance partner and someone she could count on for emotional support. Her deafness was more of a problem. She could not follow the fast chatter in social conversations and would often misunderstand and confuse spoken words such as “car” with “cow”.12 This would leave observers with a negative view of her. She became isolated.
It is reasonable to believe in adapting from her hearing loss that she did find that with close observation of people’s faces, especially her children, she could pick up their feelings. She also found other ways to communicate, such as photography. But first, I turn to her use of deep empathy to expand her communication.
Alexandra’s deep empathy
Towards the end of July 1902, before her coronation, Alexandra visited Netley Military Hospital accompanied by Dr Frederick Treves, the medical doctor who treated King Edward VII for his appendicitis in the early part of July. They took the launch from the yacht Victoria and Albert, which was anchored in the Solent Strait and proceeded to the pier in front of the hospital about four miles from Southampton, England.
Bertie’s surgeon Dr Treves had persuaded the Queen to visit and inspect the hospital as he was angered with the poor treatment provided to the Boer War veterans. They walked together along the pier to the path leading to the front doors of the hospital. On each side of this path was a park with a lawn and trees. The trees gave the veterans some reprieve from the summer heat and humidity experienced in the wards of the hospital. Many of these were men who were limbless or dreadfully mutilated. As such, they were unlikely to be accepted back into society. The war that they experienced left them totally broken. They had nowhere to go. It was totally unfair. Alexandra turned off the path and walked towards them. She asked each of them his name, where he came from and how he was injured. She took the time and listened to each man’s story, and while she had very limited hearing in both of her ears, she paid close attention to each one. Hough, who documented this story, writes that Treves observed that Alexandra did this with consummate tack and gentleness and that her hearing appeared to have improved miraculously.13
This was not Alexandra’s first visit to a hospital, as by 1902 she had visited many. For me, this was the first story when I read of her skills as a special nurse witnessed by a medical doctor of high rank and reputation. It was an odd story that mentioned her miraculously improved hearing.
- Dr. Robert Sparkes is a retired Electrical engineer who studied, with Fr. Richard Rutherford at the University of Portland in Oregon, in the area of the Christian funeral rites from the view of Bereavement and Lament. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Mary. They both love ballroom dancing. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- In “Complications of Syphilis” by Milly Dawson, June 7, 2018. “It can impact your hearing, your vision, all your major organs. It can invade the liver, the skin. It goes everywhere,” says Damian P. Alagia III, MD
- Wikipedia, Dr Arthur Farre, last edited on 26 March 2022, at 01:21 UTC
- Dimond p.133
- Wikipedia The History of Syphilis
- Duff p.190
- Duff p.204
- Battiscombe p.201
- Battiscombe p.289
- Battiscombe p.301
- Battiscombe p.299
- Battiscombe pp. 300-301
- Hough p.240