Transmission impossible? A beginner’s guide to syphilophobia

One of the more obscure things known about Adolf Hitler was that he suffered from a severe case of syphilophobia (i.e., which – according to a 1956 definition in Blakiston’s New Gould Medical Dictionary – is a morbid fear of the sexually transmitted disease syphilis). Dr. Henry A. Murray in a 1943 report entitled ‘Analysis of the personality of Adolf Hitler with predictions of his future behavior and suggestions for dealing with him now and after Germany’s surrender’ diagnosed Hitler’s neurosis, hysteria, paranoia, Oedipal tendencies, schizophrenia, “infinite self-abasement” and syphilophobia (which he describes as a fear of contamination of the blood through contact with a woman). However, the report is vague on its sources, and presented little in the way of empirical evidence for its conclusions. According to a later 1986 paper in Genitourinary Medicine, by Dr. R. Fitzpatrick and his colleagues, the authors said that Hitler believed that syphilis was a Jewish disease that was transmitted from generation to generation.

Some definitions of the condition also note that it can include people who actually believe they have syphilis even though there is no medical evidence to support the belief (and as such is classed as a form of hypochondria). The phobic condition is also known by various other names including luiphobia (‘leus’ was a former name of syphilis), venereophobia, and venereoneurosis (although the latter technically include the fear of any sexually transmitted disease). The condition has been documented in the medical literature dating back the 16th century including references to venereoneurosis (called ‘noddlepox’). A 1938 paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dr. Frank Cormia (who featured seven case studies of syphilophobia) wrote that:

“A morbid fear of syphilis has been present in the human race ever since the great plague of the early sixteenth century. Authentic written observations were first made by Turner, in 1567. Proksch published his ‘RadlinusVitus, Lues Venerea Imaginaria’in 1698”.

In one of the most detailed ‘modern’ accounts of syphilophobia in a 1957 issue of the British Journal of Venereal Diseases, Dr. Ida McAlpine (who outlined seven case studies in her report) argued that syphilophobia and venereophobia are not unitary conditions but rather non-specific symptoms of a range of psychiatric disorders. McAlpine noted that among 24 cases of ‘venereophobia’ only one was female. An earlier (1953) study by French medics Dr. P. Graciansky and Dr. E. Stern (in the journal La Semaine des Hôpitaux Thérapeutique) also had 24 cases of syphilophobia and reported that 14 were male and 10 female. For Dr. Otto Fenichel, the Viennese psychoanalyst (writing in the 1940s), syphilophobia comprised a “rationalization of unreal dangers connected with sexual activity, which on a deep, unconscious level, may represent disguised sado-masochistic wishes, for it is equally possible to be infected by other persons and to infect them”

In a 1963 study (again published in the British Journal of Venereal Diseases) of the incidence, pattern, and causes of psychiatric illness related to fear of venereal disease among 887 consecutive cases at an STD clinic, Dr. E. Kite and Dr. A. Grimble reported that psychiatric illness occurred in 5% of all patients, and was slightly more frequent in females (6%). Since the early flurry of studies published from the 1940s to the 1960s there was little (if anything published academically until the mid-2000s. A case report of syphilophobia was published in 2006 by Dr Arfan ul Bari and Dr. Ali Zulqernain in the Journal of Pakistan Association of Dermatologists. The authors reported the case of a 28-year old soldier:

“[He complained] of generalized weakness and some lesion over his glans penis and intermittent burning micturation [lasting] about 2 years. He has been visiting various doctors but was never satisfied with the treatment given…He had no history of any extramarital sexual relationship or any significant physical or psychiatric ailment in the past. General physical and systemic examination was unremarkable and on genital examination neither any active lesion, nor any mark of previous healed lesion was found. The patient insisted that he was suffering from the venereal disease (syphilis) and he had a sore over glans penis near urethral meatus…On the basis of absence of any suggested physical signs and symptoms, normal laboratory investigations and repeatedly negative serological tests for syphilis, he was considered to be a case of syphilophobia (hypochondriasis) and was referred to psychiatrist”.

Bari and Zulqernain claim that disorders like syphilophobia are probably more common than is recognized” (although I’m unsure on what they have based this opinion on). They also provided some psychological insight into the condition:

“Perhaps because of the emotional issues surrounding sexual behavior, anxiety about a sexual encounter may manifest itself as a fear or conviction that one has been infected with a sexually transmitted infection. The problem often significantly impairs the quality of life. It can cause personal distress and keep people apart from loved ones and business associates…At some point in past, there was likely an event linking lues or syphilis and emotional trauma. Whilst the original catalyst may have been a real-life scare of some kind, the condition can also be triggered by myriad, benign events like movies, TV, or perhaps seeing someone else experience trauma”.

The most recent paper I have come across on syphilophobia was published in 2010 by the Russians Dr. A.N. Provizion and colleagues (published in Russian, so I only managed to read the English summary). They believe the condition to be of “importance” and that is a condition that psychiatrists should be more aware of. It may be that the condition has moved with the times and that other sexually transmitted diseases (like AIDS) are now more of a fear than syphilis.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bari, A.U. & Zulqernain, A. (2006). Syphilophobia: a frustrating psychiatric illness presenting to dermatologists. Journal of Pakistan Association of Dermatologists, 16, 236-238.

Cormia, F.E. (1938). Syphilophobia and allied anxiety states. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 39, 361-366

Fenichel, O. (1945). Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis. London: NortonCo.

Fitzpatrick, R., Frost, D., & Ikkos, G. (1986). Survey of psychological disturbance in patients attending a sexually transmitted diseases clinic. Genitourinary Medicine, 62, 111-115.

Graciansky, P. & Stern, E. (1953). [Syphilophobia]. La Semaine des Hôpitaux Thérapeutique, 29, 2911-2915.

Hoerr, N.L. & Osol, A. (1956) Blakiston’s New Gould Medical Dictionary. McGraw-Hill.

Kite, E.d.C. & Grimble, A. (1963). Psychiatric aspects of venereal disease. British Journal of Venereal Disease, 39, 173-180.

McAlpine, I.  (1957).  Syphilophobia; A psychiatric study. British Journal of Venereal Diseases, 33, 92-99.

Murray, H. A. (1943/2005). Analysis of the personality of Adolf Hitler with predictions of his future behavior and suggestions for dealing with him now and after Germany’s surrender. A report prepared for the Office of Strategic Services, October 1943. Located at:

Provizion A.N., Provizion L.N., Shveduk S.V., Shedania I.E. [To the problem of syphilophobia], Том, 13, 147-149.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on March 21, 2013, in Case Studies, Gender differences, Mania, Psychiatry, Psychological disorders, Psychology, Sex and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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