#52Ancestors – Disease: Luetic Myocarditis and the Death of Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram
I was sitting at the kitchen table. Mom was at the stove. I told her that I had received a copy of her grandmother’s death certificate. “Oh,” she said. “She died from cardiac failure,” I continued, “caused by luetic myocarditis.” “She died from a heart attack,” Mom retorted. “I know,” I said, “caused by the luetic myocarditis.” “What?” she asked. “Tertiary Syphilis, also called Lues,” I explained. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, she died from a heart attack. What are you talking about? What are you trying to say?” she asked, eyes flashing, voice rising. “I’m not saying she did anything wrong. She was married more than once,” I continued. “She probably got it from one of her husbands, who knows what they were doing. There was no penicillin, at that time,” I reminded her. “No one’s accusing her of anything,” I said. “I don’t know what they’re talking about,” she responded, lips pressed closed tightly. She was clearly angry. I dropped the subject and never mentioned it again.
In 1978, I was busy collecting vital records on as many ancestors as possible. That included my great grandmother, Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram. When her death certificate arrived, I was quite surprised to read the cause of death: Heart Failure and Luetic Myocarditis, Compensating. She had died from complications of Tertiary Syphilis, also called “Lues.”
Syphilis is an “STD,” a sexually transmitted disease. We used to call them “venereal diseases.” Syphilis was a common communicable disease in years past. Once a laboratory test for detection had been developed and penicillin was discovered, those affected could be successfully treated. In order to stop the spread of syphilis, those diagnosed with Syphilis had to be reported to the local health department. The health departments would then begin contact tracing to find all those who may have been infected by the person being reported. Also, it was a requirement in many states for those seeking a marriage license to be tested first.
Syphilis is a sneaky disease. It comes in four stages. The first stage, called Primary Syphilis, appears shortly after being infected. It is characterized by a blister or sore in the genital area, called a chancre. It will disappear spontaneously after several days. The second stage, called Secondary Syphilis, can appear after a few weeks and is characterized by a rash. The rash can be quite a serious skin eruption occurring all over the body. Again, it is likely to go away on its own. Then, nothing happens. That’s the third, dormant stage, sometimes called the latent stage. The unsuspecting person infected could believe falsely that they have recovered. Years later, several associated serious health conditions can arise, among them, heart disease. This is known as Tertiary Syphilis. In my great grandmother’s case, it had caused Myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, leading to her “Heart Failure,” in her case called “compensating (as noted on her death certificate),” because her body had made adjustments needed to compensate for the loss of cardiac function — at least until that final heart attack.
Penicillin is not helpful during the fourth stage. It will kill the bacteria in stages one and two, or even the latent stage, thus curing the individual, but it’s more complicated in the fourth stage. Once the fourth stage appears, the penicillin will kill the syphilis infection, but it does nothing for the resulting associated diseases. If there are medications or procedures that can treat and manage the conditions, those can be used, but the damage has been done. The bottom line is that Syphilis is an infectious, communicable disease that before penicillin (and today if untreated) lead to other chronic diseases and death.
There is an amusing twist to this story. My mother was upset at the suggestion that her beloved grandmother (my great grandmother) had died from what her generation saw as a disease associated with immorality. I saw it as fascinating that someone I could personally identify had died from a disease whose pathological course I had only learned about a few months earlier. In addition, at the end of the academic year I had participated in a show called “Follies,” wherein we created Saturday Night Live-style skits around diseases, class curricula, and professors. A classmate and I had choreographed a ballroom style dance to Maurice Chevalier’s song “Louise,” only we called it “Lues (pronounced LUeez, emphasis on the first syllable, not the second as in the name).”
That’s right, we created a dance about Syphilis. I wore white, he wore a tuxedo. Recognizing the association of Syphilis with “dirty sex,” we attempted to dress in a manner that would convey “purity.” It was a hit and my mother thought it was clever and funny. Unfortunately, she was no longer laughing a few months later when we discussed her grandmother’s death. Like I said, I dropped the conversation and never mentioned it again.
 Mayo Clinic. (1998-2020). Syphilis. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/syphilis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351756#:~:text=Overview,membrane%20contact%20with%20these%20sores.