The Mysterious Case of the Wandering Womb
At the beginning of semester, I came upon a line in my psychopathology textbook regarding woman and the history of mental illness – ‘there was no ailment more dangerous for a woman than her womb spontaneously wandering around her insides’.
As I was gasping for breathe on the floor and my concerned housemate was watching me from the door, I began to consider the absolute absurdity of the statement. In that following week, during the tute we were asked, as became commonplace, an interesting science communicating piece we had seen that week. Typically, I piped up with my new quote of the semester. Unsurprisingly, not everyone was so enthralled by my newfound fact as I was. The absurdity of nature of the whole situation – a wandering womb causing a physical and mental illnesses in women – didn’t seem to phase people as I thought it would. So, my stubborn nature kicked in and here I am, with even more ludicrous facts on the topic of the wandering womb.
Whilst you may believe that this sort of thinking was established by ancient misogynistic males who were trying to further highlight the inadequacies of females, the origin of this idea has been traced back to the great philosopher Plato, and (here’s the kicker) Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, who described the condition at length in his writings. It was the ancient greeks, the first civilization to suggest that matter was made up of tiny particles and discovered the value of pi, believed that this wandering womb could move up, down, left and right.
Aretaeus Of Cappadocia, the ‘second father of modern medicine’, the first to distinguish between spinal and cerebral paralysis and who defined what we now understand as diabetes. He considered the womb as an ‘animal within an animal’, and should this pesky ‘animal’ move throughout her body, it would manifest as various physical ailments. If the womb moved towards her head, sluggishness, vertigo and lack of strength would engulf the poor woman. Shockingly, should it descend, there would be a “strong sense of choking, loss of speech and sensibility” and, most dramatically, “a very sudden incredible death.” But thankfully, this womb-animal could be tamed by scents – drawn towards pleasant smells, and repelled by foul smells. Should your womb be misplaced ladies, physicians would place pleasant smelling salts in your nether regions and would prescribe you to smell foul smelling items. Additionally, it was suggested keep the womb occupied, and consequently in its correct place, physicians stressed the importance of pregnancies, and subsequently, consistent sex from women suffering physical or mental ailments.
Women in the grasp of Hysteria. Credit: Wikimedia
The romans continued this fine tradition of the womb-animal, however it no longer roamed freely throughout the body. A lady’s mental and physical ailments were caused from tension on the membranes that kept it in place. What we would now refer to as premenstrual stress, was described as hysteria and caused by the ‘suffocation’ of the womb filling with blood’ – odd, but strangely relatable.
The cure? Physicians prescribed to making the woman sneeze, and shouting at her.
The practise of smelling salts, sneezing and yelling at these poor women continued for several hundred years until in the 1700’s the practice took an interesting approach. Female hysteria in the Victorian Age, most likely caused from the suffocation of emotions (and from corsets), lead to a countless number of cures for those ‘haywire’ wombs. Hypnosis, vibrating devices and blasting the vagina with a jet water are just a few that are highly documented practises for curing these hysterical ladies.
It was surprising it took until the 20th century for someone to suggest that men too suffered from hysteria. Sigmund Freud not only highlighted this, by crucially suggested that in fact mental illnesses were from the brain, not the haywire womb. We now understand what these Ancient Greeks and Romans considered hysteria was most likely range of psychopathology illnesses including schizoaffective, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. Thankfully, the womb is only seen as an organ in the reproductive system and no longer seen as the root women’s incompetence – unless of course you are in the fetal position experiencing those dreaded cramps.
Interested in reading more?
King,Helen. Hippocrates‘ Women. New York: Routledge, 1998.