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Pomegranate Pessaries and Wandering Wombs: A History of Gynecology

By HERWriter
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Pomegranate Pessary and Wandering Womb: A History of Gynecology photoprime/Fotolia

Imagine carrying a load of laundry down the garden path in 1670 and having your uterus fall out. Such a thing happened to a 46-year-old peasant named Faith Haworth, who, exasperated by this frequent inconvenience, grabbed the organ, yanked it out, and cut it free with a knife. Faith thereby performed the first recorded successful vaginal hysterectomy.(6)

Or imagine seeking care for pelvic pain or vaginal bleeding in an era when the direct discussion of sexuality and reproduction was considered indecorous.(5)

Then imagine a common fate that was even worse than death in childbirth — a leaking stench resulting from traumatized vaginal tissues that prevented you from ever interacting in society again. (5)

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, women who went underwent pelvic surgery or gynecological care were subjected to doctors’ lack of anatomical knowledge, an absence of accepted germ theory — neither hand washing nor sterilized instruments — and the absence of anesthesia.

In the early modern period, roughly 1400 to 1800, childbirth included a morality screening, when midwives who helped with births were expected to go beyond their medical role and enforce the moral norms of their communities.

Once a woman entered into the throes of labor — and was presumably more disposed to tell the truth — her midwife was required to ask her to name the father of the child, thereby exposing any adulterous hanky panky.(7)

For centuries, a sense of “appropriateness” continued to keep doctors from adequately treating women for reproductive problems. Doctors were further impeded by the lack electrical lighting (you can’t treat what you can’t see) and inadequate instruments.(5)

Dr. Anthony Tizzano, OB/GYN and historical consultant for the PBS series “Mercy Street,” explained that military misfortunes such as the Civil War Period, and the field surgery techniques learned as a result, did much to move expertise in abdominal surgery forward. This benefitted the field of gynecology, a primarily surgical field at its inception.

1) Historical Milestones in Female Pelvic Surgery, Gynecology and Female Urology. ColoradoWomensHealth.com. Retrieved March 4, 2016.

2) 19th Century Operative Gynecology. PBS.org. Retrieved March 14, 2016.

3) Hysterectomy. medscape.com. Retrieved March 4, 2016.

4) Hysterectomy: a historical perspective. NIH.gov. Retrieved March 28, 2016.

5) Interview. Dr. Anthony Tizzano. March 16, 2016.

6) TCM Chronology. shen-nong.com. Retrieved March 6, 2016.

7)  Carlebach, Elisheva. “Community, Authority, and Jewish Midwives in Early Modern Europe.” Jewish Social Studies 20.2 (2014): 5–33. Web. p. 8. Via Jstor.

8) The medical ethics of Dr J Marion Sims: a fresh look at the historical record. NIH.gov. Retrieved March 4, 2016.

9) History of Pelvic Surgery. AUGS.org. Retrieved March 6, 2016.

10) Fetal Surgery. medscape.com. Retrieved March 20, 2016.

11)  Howard Jones Jr., MD, father of IVF in the United States, dies at 104. EVMS.edu. Retrieved March 28, 2016. 

12) Obstetrics & Gynecologic History. ObGynHistory.com. Retrieved March 2, 2016.


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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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