A HIV test today can be as simple as a finger prick but testing for sexually transmitted infections hasn’t always been this easy. It’s only in the last century that scientists have discovered how many STIs exist, and how to test for each separately.
In the 1750s, there was uncertainty about whether syphilis and gonorrhoea were separate infections, which led to John Hunter – a Scottish anatomist - injecting his own penis with discharge from a gonorrhoea patient. Hunter got unlucky however, as the discharge he used was infected with gonorrhoea and syphilis, and he developed both infections. He declared that his experiment was proof that the two infections were the same.
Before laboratory diagnoses were available, doctors relied heavily on using their patient’s sexual history or self-diagnosis to identify potential STIs. Unfortunately, the going treatment for syphilis was ingesting mercury pills, a highly toxic (and largely ineffective) medicine – a high price to pay if your doctor had it wrong.
To French doctor Philippe Ricord, this method seemed highly unscientific, so, in the early 1800s, he suggested diagnosing syphilis by poking patients with needles covered in the infection. He believed that someone who already had syphilis would respond differently to those who didn’t. He performed thousands of experiments to prove his method, but it didn’t catch on.
Another doctor, Albert Abrams from America, trialed a similarly strange method of diagnosis. Abrams developed all sorts of gadgets and methods that he believed could diagnose and cure almost any disease. He claimed that he could tell if someone had an STI by examining their signature, and diagnosed several famous people, including Edgar Allen Poe, with syphilis this way. He also invented a machine called the Dynomizer that supposedly found infections in a single dried drop of blood, and a method called spondylotherapy that involved tapping different parts of the spine.
The first big breakthrough in blood testing came in 1906 when Karl Landsteiner found a way to isolate the syphilis bacteria under a microscope. This was just one year after scientists discovered that there even was a bacteria causing syphilis! Later that same year, August Paul von Wassermann found a better way to test blood, looking for antibodies – proteins made by our immune system in response to infection – rather than bacteria. This type of test is still used today to detect many infections, including HIV.
Nowadays, all you must do to test for HIV is prick your finger and let the test do its work. It’s a simple way to know your HIV status, and to take care of your health.