'Sexual revolution launched by Penicillin'
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The 1950s were not as prudish as they seemed on the surface, an economist has said.
According to a recent analysis by Andrew Francis, the rise in risky and non-traditional sexual relations that marked the swinging '60s actually began as much as a decade earlier, during the conformist '50s.
"It's a common assumption that the sexual revolution began with the permissive attitudes of the 1960s and the development of contraceptives like the birth control pill," Emory University economist Francis said.
"The evidence, however, strongly indicates that the widespread use of penicillin, leading to a rapid decline in syphilis during the 1950s, is what launched the modern sexual era," he said.
As penicillin drove down the cost of having risky sex, the population started having more of it, Francis says, comparing the phenomena to the economic law of demand: When the cost of a good falls, people buy more of the good.
"People don't generally think of sexual behaviour in economic terms but it's important to do so because sexual behaviour, just like other behaviours, responds to incentives," he said.
Syphilis reached its peak in the United States in 1939, when it killed 20,000 people.
"It was the AIDS of the late 1930s and early 1940s," Francis said.
"Fear of catching syphilis and dying of it loomed large," he said.
Penicillin was discovered in 1928, but it was not put into clinical use until 1941. As World War II escalated, and sexually transmitted diseases threatened the troops overseas, penicillin was found to be an effective treatment against syphilis.
"The military wanted to rid the troops of STDs and all kinds of infections, so that they could keep fighting," Francis said.
"That really sped up the development of penicillin as an antibiotic," he said.
Right after the war, penicillin became a clinical staple for the general population as well. In the United States, syphilis went from a chronic, debilitating and potentially fatal disease to one that could be cured with a single dose of medicine.