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Topic section: A woman’s body; a surgeon’s eye
A woman’s body; a surgeon’s eye

Anatomy – the form and structure of the body – became central to western medicine during the eighteenth cen
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A detail of an anatomical wax figure, c 1771-1780, depicting a reclining female model.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
tury. Before this doctors thought in terms of the four humours. Anatomy was less important because disease was considered the result of humoral imbalance. In other major medical systems, such as the Chinese or Ayurvedic (Indian), anatomy remains of secondary importance in diagnosing and treating illness.

But in the West, as disease came to be thought of as an abnormal change in particular body tissues, anatomy became fundamental. Surgeons had always thought anatomically. In the West, their status rose as divisions between physicians and surgeons broke down. An

Female models recline as passive objects, sometimes in sexually inviting poses

atomical knowledge, gained through dissection, became the basis for understanding disease, and for a huge expansion in surgery.

Anatomical models and medical illustrations played a central role in preserving knowledge gained through dissection. There were many ways that a model or illustration could look. Often, conventions were borrowed from the arts – wax anatomical figures were made in classical poses, for example. Historians have begun to study the conventions used in representing women’s bodies. They have suggested that these served to reinforce existing ideas about social relations.

For example, in almost all anatomical models, men are shown standing up, in active positions. But female models recline as passive objects, sometimes in sexually inviting poses. Anatomical models and illustrations often emph
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A detail of an anatomical figure of a pregnant woman, possibly Italian, 1600-1800.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
asised the soft, nurturing qualities that women were considered to have, and their ability to bear children. Such qualities were essential to the stability of the family unit.

Gynaecology emerged as a surgical specialty during the nineteenth century. Patients slowly accepted use of the vaginal speculum, known since classical times but long considered improper. The speculum allowed some surgery under direct vision. In North America, James Marion Sims improvised a speculum using a shiny spoon. With this instrument he was able to access and treat injuries from prolonged lab
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Anatomical figure of a female torso, American, 1979.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
our which caused incontinence, using silver wire sutures. Sims developed his techniques by operating on enslaved Afro-americans. The British surgeon Thomas Spencer Wells became famous for removing ovarian cysts – a daring and controversial abdominal procedure in the pre-antiseptic era.

Once anaesthesia and asepsis were established, surgery was advocated for many ‘female disorders’, including, in the nineteenth century, hysteria and masturbation. Hysterectomy (removal of the womb) became one of the commonest of all operations.

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Topic section: Out of the home into the maternity ward
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After doctors took over the management of childbirth, they introduced instruments and drugs to manage the birthing process better. These practices are still debated today. The number of caesarean sections is rising, but more women are choosing natural childbirth.  > more

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Topic section: The battle over birth control
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Before the twentieth century, the medical profession had little interest in sexual matters. This gave women the opportunity to create their own methods of birth control. Even butter or powder puffs could become methods of preventing pregnancy.  > more
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