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Topic of sexual diseases gets overdue attention
"Venereal Disease and the Lewis and Clark Expedition," by Thomas P. Lowry of Woodbridge, tackles a virtually ignored subject. By Sandra D. Speiden

Date published: 4/23/2005

VENEREAL DISEASE AND THE LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION, by Thomas P. Lowry. University of Nebraska Press. 101 pages. $21.95.

"SEX IS THE long-ignored theme of Lewis and Clark and their immortal journey. Sex and venereal disease. Sex is 'the elephant in the living room,' the gigantic fact that all agree to ignore. Comments about sex and venereal disease run rampant in the pages of their journals, yet they are mentioned only in passing in the many books about Lewis and Clark.

"And what caused Meriwether Lewis' terminal insanity? What drove him to a truly bizarre mode of suicide, one in which he shot himself twice and then, some say, slashed his body from head to toe, adding strips of bleeding flesh to the gunpowder-burned holes in his chest and head? What could cause so brave and resilient a military leader to mutilate his body thus, as his final public act? Was it syphilis of the brain that skewed his thoughts?

"Of course, the journey of Lewis and Clark, now being commemorated in its bicentennial celebration, was about many things besides sex."

Thus writes Thomas P. Lowry of Woodbridge, a retired psychiatrist and associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco, in his preface to his 101-page careful study of the explorers' journals and discussion of the history of syphilis and medical knowledge from the 1400s up through the early 1800s and into the 21st century.

Organized by subject into six chapters, Lowry begins with an explanation of what syphilis and gonorrhea are, their symptoms, transmission and treatment. He then addresses what Lewis and Clark knew about these diseases.

"Lewis and Clark, on their immortal voyage of discovery, faced many perils: swelling rivers, thundering waterfalls, hostile Indians, blizzards, frostbite, starvation, grizzly bears, rattlesnakes, and the great unknown of the Rocky Mountains. Of these dangers, one of the greatest and most feared was venereal disease," Lowry points out.

Fully 15 percent of the medical supplies that Lewis and Clark carried with them was geared toward treating the "anticipated private miseries of the expedition," writes Lowry.

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