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The History Behind Obstetrics and Gynecology

Anyone who knows me knows that I never turn down the opportunity to talk about feminine health. Obviously, it is extremely important, and it isn’t talked about near as much as it should be. Lately, I’ve been really interested in the origin of the OB/GYN practice. Two key points in the timeline of OB/GYN really stuck out to me, and, honestly, they’re terrifying. 

 Ancient Greco-Roman Period: 

To fully appreciate the absurdity of the practice during this time, you must understand the way society was structured. Women, with the exception of aristocratic women, were valued at a little more than nothing. Most had no land, money, or property of their own if it was not by the extension of a man. Children were considered the husband’s property, and the woman was held to the same standard as the children. Women were expected to stay in their quarters, only interact with other women, and be present with the sole purpose of pleasing the husband in any way he saw fit. If he was not content, he could run off and procure a concubine. But was divorce an option? Of course not. I could ramble on and on about the all-too-prominent sexism, but I’ll start to get to my point, I promise. 

At this point in time, any illness was attributed to the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. If an individual had an excess or deficiency of any of the humors, the result would be an illness. Women were associated with the weaker humors just as they were associated with the weaker gender. Because of the inferiority of the female gender, male physicians, with the occasional exception, would not examine or perform procedures on women. This becomes extra alarming when we take into account that only men were formally educated, and the rest fell into the laps of midwives who learned from indirect accounts.

Because of the limited research done on the topic, there were so many contradicting theories on how the female body worked. Some thought sex, menstruation, and pregnancy were detrimental to the body. Others thought it was the only way it would function properly. Physicians even thought that the womb would travel throughout the body. When a woman was “delirious” it was obviously because her womb traveled to her brain, right? So why not put something that smells really bad right under her nose to coax it back down to its cozy little home. If the womb was positioned too low, a concoction would be placed at the opening of the vagina to coax it back up, once again, to its cozy little home. 

As you can probably imagine, procedures and births didn’t always go great. Death rates for mom and baby were high. As time progressed, things got a little better, but the real change came with the introduction of anesthetics and antiseptics. 

“Father of Modern Gynecology”:

Another disaster in the making was the “Father of Modern Gynecology,” James Marion Sims. In the 19th century, Sims moved to Alabama to get a fresh start for his medical career. Like most male physicians, even continuing throughout the centuries, he had no interest in treating women as it was seen as offensive, but the majority of his business was with the female slave population. If the women’s owner provided the clothing and other resources for the women, Sims would take them on as his patients as well as his property. For so many years he experimented on these women with medical procedures such as repairing fistulas that formed after childbirth or performing routine examinations. There was no anesthetic. There was no proper sterilization or precautionary measures taken. The women would have to endure hours-long surgeries with nothing to aid the pain while perched upon their hands and knees.

From what I gather, he saw these women as another plaything for his advancement rather than for the purpose of helping them and others. Once he finally had a successful surgery four years later, which was few and far between, he decided his work was good enough for white women and operated on them using anesthetic since they were the ones that needed it. In physician’s minds at this time, African-Americans didn’t feel as much pain as whites. This irrational misconception enabled physicians to continue this practice, and those similar, for years. The statue commemorating him in Central Park was finally removed in 2018.

 

In no way am I trying to grasp for any likeness of suffering for the two groups, but I am trying to point out a common theme: Placing women’s needs as a priority has always been a last resort,  specifically the needs of African-American women. This field is vital to our health, and should always have been and continue to be one of importance. The more history we learn, the easier it will be to shut down negative connotations that surround the topic of feminine health. This field was considered offensive and vulgar when it is not in the slightest. It isn’t vulgar. It isn’t offensive. It is simply the female body. 

 

Sources

Green, M. H. (2010). ˜Theœ Trotula An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Holland, B. (2017, August 29). The ‘Father of Modern Gynecology’ Performed Shocking Experiments on Slaves. Retrieved November 03, 2020

Ava Lubin

C of C '23

Hey! I'm Ava. I'm from Cleveland, Mississippi, and I'm a sophomore majoring in Psychology and minoring in Italian Studies. I love being with friends, going to concerts, and travelling!
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