Speaking the Unspeakable

It struck on October 23, 1942.There was no warning.

For families across Britain it was like any other Friday night settling around a cosy coal fire listening to the BBC Home Service with its cheery wartime distractions: a concert from the Glasgow Orpheus Choir and some laughs with Tommy Handley in ITMA.

The listings merely had it as “Tonight’s Talk” by Sir Wilson Jameson. Some might have recognised the name of the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) but no-one could have imagined what came next.

He started talking about tuberculosis. One still preferred not to talk about that sort of thing in genteel society. But this was just a feint before the bombshell: “And now for a few words about venereal disease., the two chief forms of which are syphilis and gonorrhoea….”

It is not clear how many listeners keeled over in shock nor how many maiden aunts choked on their cocoa. Public health had become pubic health. Private parts were no longer private. And quite frankly, my dear, it was all perfectly ghastly…

It wasn’t just a few words – VD took up most of the talk. Thanks to BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Archives, you can now listen to it here on this podcast (it comes in at 26 minutes) https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p08vm9yz

Or the talk itself:

He didn’t hold back:

“How are we going to deal with the situation?  I’ll tell you how we shall never be able to deal with it …. and that is by running away from it, by shutting our eyes to its existence, by refusing to discuss it, or by withholding from young people information regarding its dangers…. There must be no more secrecy.”

Reaction to the broadcast was muted.  The BMJ offered a supportive editorial and local papers took up the same theme with features by regional medical officers.

The main battle ground was with national newspapers over Health Ministry adverts. Editors were quite happy to include salacious details of divorce cases, but this was quite a different matter. Some papers like the Daily Express, wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole but it was welcomed by the Daily Mirror which was already campaigning on VD. Cuts were also made in the copy to satisfy other newspapers. “The first sign of syphilis is a small ulcer on or near the sex organs” only got in when the sex organs part was excised.

Jameson said cases of VD had risen 70 per cent since 1939 and confidential treatment was widely available. He argued that VD should be regarded like any other infectious disease.

He met the media the following week. Jameson was the first UK CMO to hold regular press conferences.  He spoke clearly, often without notes and gave straight answers to their questions. Public opinion surveys in December showed solid support for the initiative.

The Health Ministry stressed the success of drug treatments. What it didn’t say is that these had originated in Germany in 1935 with Gerhard Domagk’s discovery of Prontosil, the first antibiotic and sulphonamide drug which proved remarkably successful treating diseases like gonorrhea and puerperal sepsis. Hitler had banned Domagk from collecting his Nobel prize in 1940.

Jameson’s overarching theme was that germs more dangerous than Germans. He made his radio debut the previous year promoting the UK’s first concerted mass immunisation campaign, against diphtheria, a disease which claimed the lives of 7000 children in the first three years of the war – more than died in the entire conflict from Luftwaffe bombing.

The diphtheria campaign was directly modelled on successful programmes in Toronto and New York City. The Health Ministry also borrowed the slogan Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases first coined in the US during the 1918/19 influenza pandemic to make series of propaganda films for showing in factories and cinemas.

“For war, though a great destroyer of things worth preserving, may yet almost overnight open the door to progress and reform that in peacetime would have meant years of constant striving” Jameson remarked in 1941.

Jameson retained his Aberdonian lilt. He was also very supportive of the nursing and midwives division newly set up in the Ministry and chief nurse Katherine Watt, a fellow Scot.

As dean of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Jameson wasn’t keen on accepting the CMO’s job in 1940, only taking it out of a sense of duty. He appeared calm and distant but was very supportive to young researchers and medical officers.

Ironically, his finest hour came after the war – working with Nye Bevan to create the National Health Service and diplomatically smoothing emerging cold war tensions at the first World Health Organisation general assembly to ensure the United States joined.

Another totem fell in 1948 when he was the first CMO to feature mental health in his annual report.  Bevan was also inspired to break a taboo in the tenth anniversary debate on the NHS by breaking parliamentary convention to name Jameson and Sir William Douglas, permanent secretary at the Health Ministry, for the vital support they had given him.

There was no warning for that either. 

Categories: gems from the archive, history on the web, medical and nursing

Tags: , , , , ,

2 replies


  1. Can anything good come out of Aberdeen? – The History Company
  2. History Company newsletter (3) – The History Company

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: