Irish Journal of Medical Science

, Volume 178, Issue 1, pp 73–77 | Cite as

Syphilis, psychiatry and offending behaviour: clinical cases from nineteenth-century Ireland

  • B. D. KellyEmail author
Original Article



Syphilis presented substantial challenges to nineteenth-century medical and psychiatric services.


To illustrate the clinical course and diagnostic challenges associated with neurosyphilis in nineteenth-century Ireland.


This paper uses original archival material from the Central Criminal Lunatic Asylum, Dublin to present clinical cases and inform a discussion of related issues.


Mr A, a 34-year-old banker convicted of “felonious entry”, demonstrated many psychiatric and neurological features of neurosyphilis (“general paralysis of the insane”); he soon became “feeble”, “paralytic” and “demented”, and died within 2 years. The case of Mr B, a 38-year-old game-keeper convicted of “attempting to upset trains”, illustrates diagnostic dilemmas associated with neurosyphilis, especially when complicated by evidence of tuberculosis (“scrofulous diathesis”).


The clinical and diagnostic challenges presented by syphilis have changed over the past century, but these cases, combined with recent evidence of syphilis outbreaks, highlight ongoing needs for clinical and epidemiological vigilance.


Syphilis Mental disorders Forensic psychiatry Mercury History Nineteenth century Ireland 



The author is grateful for the support of Professor Harry Kennedy, National Forensic Psychiatry Service, Central Mental Hospital, Dundrum, Dublin, Ireland.

Conflict of interest statement



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Copyright information

© Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Adult PsychiatryUniversity College Dublin, Mater Misericordiae University HospitalDublin 7Ireland

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