A life researching sexually transmitted infections

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Hungarian-born Dr George Csonka (1916-2000) was a venereologist and an expert in his field. A man so dedicated to his profession, he even infected himself with non-gonococcal urethritis in order to find the right antibiotic (reference: PP/CSO/A/5). Dr Csonka’s personal papers have now been catalogued and are available to researchers in the Library under the collection level reference PP/CSO.

After fleeing Hungary and Vienna because of antisemitism, Csonka and his family moved to Britain in 1938. Here, he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War II before eventually practicing as a consultant in venereology in London. Csonka developed an interest in research that spanned his entire career. A large part of the archive (Section A) is comprised of his research on syphilis, gonorrhoea and other diseases.

erosion characteristic of tertiary syphilis

The faces of a female and male showing the bone and soft tissue erosion characteristic of tertiary syphilis. From: Atlas of Skin and Venereal Diseases, published New York, 1889.

Csonka became an authority on Reiter syndrome and bejel (endemic non-venereal syphilis). His travels to Iraq to investigate bejel in 1952 are well documented in his papers. He journeyed to the region as the Chief Medical Adviser on the Bejel/Syphilis Project. Sponsored by the World Health Organization, this campaign aimed to eradicate bejel and to fully investigate the geographical distribution and epidemiology of the condition, as well as trying to determine whether it was clinically identical to syphilis.

He travelled to several “bejel villages” throughout Iraq, some of the remotest and rural locations in the region, where he assessed and treated over 3,500 patients during a nine month period. The archive contains correspondence, proposals for the trip, reports on findings and photographs (reference: PP/CSO/A/1).

Csonka participated in a similar campaign in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s (reference: PP/CSO/A/2) and published his findings from both projects in the British Journal of Venereal Diseases (references: PP/CSO/B/2 and PP/CSO/B/5).

Dr Csonka’s colleagues at work in one of the “bejel villages” in Iraq, 1952

Dr Csonka’s colleagues at work in one of the “bejel villages” in Iraq, 1952. Image credit: reproduced with permission of Clare Csonka. Wellcome Library reference: PP/CSO/A/1/3.

The collection also includes Csonka’s investigations into Reiter syndrome (reference: PP/CSO/A/10), which is now commonly referred to as reactive arthritis. (The eponym has now been dropped as it was originally derived from physician Dr Hans Reiter, a Nazi supporter). A 1970s report titled A Venereologist’s Approach to Reiter’s Disease notes that the majority of patients were suffering from non-gonococcal urethritis, arthritis and conjunctivitis. Csonka’s research contributed to the medical community developing a wider understanding of the disease, and he published extensively on this condition (reference: PP/CSO/A/10/2).

Throughout his career, Csonka authored over 70 published articles, which are featured in the archive under Section B. In addition to this, he was co-editor of the textbook Sexually Transmitted Diseases: a textbook of genitourinary medicine (1990). His papers also hold working documents for two unpublished textbooks. These manuscripts focus on specific sexually transmitted diseases, highlighting their aetiology, clinical features and treatment, and can be found under Section C.

For more historical research material on sexually transmitted diseases see the archives source guides on sex and sexual health.

Zoe Fullard

Zoe Fullard is an assistant archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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