In 1817 Vasili Golovnin sailed a ship named Kamchatka from Kronstadt to Kamchatka and met there its governor, Rikord. In "Around the World", he wrote that:

Almost all the local common people of both sexes, and even the children, are infected with a well-known social disease. Formerly, the physicians would go through the district once a year, but they could give only advice by way of help to the sick, because medicine was very seldom available. Even if medicine had been available, how could it cure a disease which requires special diet, rest, warm dwellings, etc.? At present, Mr. Rikord has established a clinic and has brought overland all the necessary medication, while at his request we brought by sea all the hospital equipment.

He also mentions people there that "could barely walk before completely cured".

Despite the lack of medical information in Golovnin's description, is it clear which particular social disease was rampant? How were children catching the disease?

  • 1
    This might be better as a medical question than a historical one. Historical research will only help if an unambiguous reference was written down somewhere still available, whereas a medical analysis might make the identification obvious. I'd also double-check the translation, in case "social disease" is not identical in meaning to modern English STD. Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 19:18
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    I'm wondering if the infection isn't simply lice, if it can be treated completely without antibiotics. Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 19:20
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    It is known from other sources that this was probably syphilis. Golovnin just does not want to mention this decease by name and uses an euphemism.
    – Alex
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 20:06
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    Sad to say, Syphilis can be spread from mother to child via the placenta prior to birth as well as during birth via a sore. The treatment for Syphilis at the time unfortunately was mercury...
    – AllInOne
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 20:08
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    I'm also pretty sure it was syphilis. I think Grigory Langsdorff wrote a memorandum about the situation in Kamchatka about a decade before Golovnin's voyage. If I remember right, one outcome of that memorandum was that a surgeon was sent to Kamchatka to try and eradicate the disease (he wasn't successful. Treponema pallidum was beyond even the best doctors in the pre-antibiotic world) Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 20:29

1 Answer 1


Helpful comments above indicate that the disease was syphilis. This is backed up by secondary sources:

  • Jones's Empire of Extinction describes it as "rampant".
  • Jochelson's The Kamchadals called it "widespread".
  • Stern's Marginal Linguistic Identities reports one in three natives suffering.
  • Davidson's Geographical Pathology says it was "very prevalent".

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