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Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | April 01, 2013

The hope was big. Dr. Thomas Parran, a U.S. surgeon general who led the public health campaign against venereal disease, told students at Skidmore College in the summer of 1938: “It should be possible by national effort such as now is underway to make syphilis a rare disease in this generation.”

Alas, the pre-marriage tests were something of a bust. During the first year of testing in New York City, only 1.34 percent of grooms and brides tested positive for syphilis, although officials believed at least 10 percent of its citizens were afflicted. Why was the catch so low? It’s possible the original estimates were inflated, according to No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States by Alan M. Brandt, a history professor at Harvard University. Couples also probably evaded the tests by getting hitched in neighboring states without the law. Before New York passed a law of its own and after Connecticut passed its in 1935, neighboring New York counties saw their weekend marriage rates spike 55 percent, according to Brandt.

More successful was legislation, passed in New York in the same year, that required pregnant women to have their blood tested for syphilis. A similar prenatal testing regimen in California lowered the syphilis infant mortality rate from 6.50 per 1,000 in 1938 to 0.15 per 1,000 in 1945, Brandt said, helping to protect babies from syphilis before the widespread adoption of antibiotics.

By the 1980s, most states realized the money spent on the tests wasn’t worth it, and they were striking their premarital blood test laws from t he books. New York finally repealed its test law in 1985.

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