The story of menopause is a case of hormonal hysteria, driven by men’s misconceptions
“A woman in the fall of her life deserves an Indian summer rather than a winter of discontent.” So wrote Professor Robert Benjamin Greenblatt in his pioneering research on hormone replacement and menopause.
Greenblatt’s work revolutionized the field of reproductive endocrinology. In addition to being a key figure in the development of the birth control pill, his research has shown that estrogen is an effective way of relieving symptoms of menopause.
October 18 is World Menopause Day, which is part of Global Menopause Awareness Month – a campaign we badly need. The stigma, shame and misunderstanding that continue to surround this all-natural process is enormous and causes untold damage.
But how did we get there? In clinical terms, menopause is the natural cessation of menstruation, but it has been discussed in terms of a medical event since the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, the word “menopause” was only recorded for the first time in the work of the French physician Charles-Pierre-Louis de Gardanne in 1821.
His work wasn’t the first to discuss what happens to the body when menstruation stops, but he was the first to give it a medical-sounding name. Until then, it was euphemistically called the “climacteric”, and if you think it’s bad, French doctors liked to call postmenopausal women dethroned queens, or “dethroned queens”.
Before that, there was very little medical work on menopause, although it was described in ancient texts by Aristotle and the first-century Greek gynecologist Soranus. Even Galen, the grandfather of Western medicine, had surprisingly little to say about menopause.
And you won’t get much help from scholars in the following centuries either. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, medical texts had surprisingly little to say about “climacteric”. Given the endless reams of material produced on women’s reproductive systems, the silence surrounding menopause is deafening.
It seems that throughout history the female body has only been considered worthy of discussion as long as a woman is fertile. There is no doubt that the women talked to each other about what was going on in their bodies, advised on what helped relieve symptoms, and shared their knowledge – it’s just that none of them did. wrote in a medical text.
In the 18th century, not only did medical knowledge and technology develop rapidly, medicine established itself as an industry and it was an industry that required paying patients. No wonder then that it is here that the first efforts are found to medicalize menopause as a disease.
In 1777, for example, John Leake asserted that “at this critical point in life the female sex is often afflicted with various diseases of the chronic type”, and that “I have observed that more women die at this age. than at any other age. other period ”. If you were to survive this, Leake identified a host of terrifying ailments women might expect, including “pain and dizziness in the head,” “hemorrhages,” “intolerable itching” of the bladder, and “adjoining parts.” “, Rheumatism, scurvy, ulcers and” skin rashes “.
It was Edward John Tilt (1815-1893), an English physician, who wrote the first comprehensive book on the subject and treatment of menopause in 1857. In The Change of Life in Health and Disease, Tilt refers to the menopause as “the change of life”, “the critical moment” and “the turning point of life”.
He has tried to dispel some of the many misconceptions about menopause, and points to the potential benefits, which include pearls such as, once freed from the vagaries of menstruation, a woman can finally “listen to her head” and have renewed enthusiasm. for charitable work.
To give him his due, Tilt tried to get his peers to take “the critical moment” more seriously. But rather than reassuring anyone, the work turned menopause into a disease requiring medical intervention. Victorian physicians were already determined to pathologize every aspect of the reproductive system and come up with various “cures”.
Tilt has identified well over 100 potential symptoms of menopause, ranging from insanity to a puffy face, all of which could be treated by a doctor. Treatments range from a good bath and a glass of sherry to dinner with belladonna suppositories and occasional chloroforming.
On the subject of sex and menopause, Tilt had this to say; “As a flickering flame gives a last fire, so in some women the sexual desire is strongest when the reproductive power is about to be extinguished”, but “I find it unwise that women marry at this time without have obtained the sanction of a medical adviser. ”Good to know.
As of now, menopause was discussed extensively in the medical journals of the time. There was a setback against the idea that it was a dangerous time. Write in the American Journal of Obstetrics in 1895, Dr. Andrew Currier argued that menopause was not a “time of anxiety” or madness, and was, in fact, a time of “beauty and hope” – with the right “medical relief” or surgical ”, of course.
At the start of the 20th century, scientists began to identify hormones and their function in the human body. And in 1929, scientists succeeded in isolating estrogen. In 10 years, the first estrogen replacement treatments were offered to postmenopausal women. In order to sell this new miracle product, pharmaceutical companies had to convince women that they needed it.
In 1966, the pharmaceutical company Wyeth, which made Premarin, an estrogen replacement therapy, funded Dr. Robert Wilson’s research into menopause. The resulting book, Feminine forever, describes menopause as “a serious, painful and often debilitating disease”. It was a brutally effective message that made menopause a disease requiring treatment.
Hormone replacement therapy helps millions of people around the world and alleviates various symptoms of menopause and perimenopause. But the problem with viewing menopause as a disease that can be cured with a pill is that it fosters a culture of silence and shame. This secret has been formed over hundreds of years and maintained by an industry that has taken advantage of women’s shame in taking their drugs.
Menopause is often euphemistically referred to as “change,” and a change in the way we understand menopause is most certainly what is needed.