Thursday, October 11, 2012

The History of Menopause

by Dr. Margaret Aranda

On his Treatise on the History of Animals, Aristotle wrote that menopause occurred in
the fortieth year, but some childbearing up to the fifties was not uncommon.  There is a paucity of writings on menopause in the Greek literature, perhaps because fewer women lived to be of a postmenopausal age. 

The ancient Greeks attributed an “imbalance of humors” to various conditions. Today, we would call it an “imbalance of hormones”.  One of those conditions was the state of infertility due to an inability of an aging woman to have a baby.

The international, social, and biological deficiency state of “imbalance of humors” placed a certain taboo on women worldwide.  Women sought to restore the imbalance, and some of their means were bold.  They placed leeches on their legs, so that the blood-sucking bugs would get rid of the excess blood and create balance. In India, testicular juice was a remedy.  In North America and China, wild yam was used.  There are other extreme measures that women undertook to try to either bring back their periods or alleviate symptoms (see Table).  But these experiments of concoctions proved useful when in the 1950's, the root of the wild yam was harvested for its diosgenin, which is a phytoestrogen. A phytoestrogen is a plant with a hormone that is structurally similar to estrogen.  In the 1960's, based on this chemical conversion of a phytoestrogen to an estrogen, this is how the first birth control was originally formulated.

Early Treatments of Menopause
Time Period
Can be treated with black cohosh, (Cimifuga racemosa), a natural precursor to estrogen
eHow 2012
Can be treated with wild yam, Dioscoria villosa
Buchanan 2012
Can be treated with testicular juice
Singh et al, 2002
Can be treated with crushed ovaries of animals
Singh et al, 2002
Devil had a covenant with the woman
Old pagan and religious belief
Body Logic, 2012
‘Usual mixture’ before meals: carbonated soda, opium, vaginal injections of lead acetate, morphine hydrochlorate, distilled water, chloric ether
Foxcroft 2009
Ovarian extracts used to relieve vasomotor symptoms
Speroff, 1999
Herbals, belladonna, cannabis, or opium
“Ovarlin” flavored powder, dessicated and pulverized cow ovaries
Women were insane, giving ‘insane interpretations’ of their symptoms.
Savage 1903
 Table.  Descriptions of the early beliefs of menopause through time.  Menopause carries with it a vivid history of remedies to alleviate the 'insanity' of it all.  Today, some hold that hormone imbalance is best treated with bioidentical hormone replacement therapy.

The Ancient Egyptians are credited with the concoction of elixirs that were used for anti-aging purposes (Utian, WH.,  2008).

Trotula of Salerno, who may have been a female physician, wrote in the 13th Century writing of women in medieval Europe, The Diseases of Women:

 “Since in women not so much heat abounds that is suffices to use up the moistures which daily collect in them, their weakness cannot endure so much exertion as to be able to put forth that moisture to the outside air as in the case of men.

Nature herself, on account of this deficiency, has assigned for them a special purgation namely the menses, commonly called flowers.  Now a purgation of this sort usually befalls women about the 13th or 14th year or a little later according to whether heat or cold abounds in them more.  It lasts up to about the 50th year if she is lean; sometimes up to the 60th or 65th year if she is moist; in the moderately fat up to about the 45th.” 

In 1821, the term ‘menopause’ was coined by Dr. Charles N├ęgrier (1792 – 1862).  It is derived from the Greek; month is ‘men’, and pause is ‘pausis’. 

In the 1800’s, there was much medical interest in menopause, but not the way that you would think.  The average of menopause in England was 45. Consider that you went into menopause in the 1800’s, complaining of depression, hot flashes, and irregular periods.  Doctors were quick to diagnoses these women with “hysteria”, a major term that literally referred to the uterus in Latin.  The Greek 'hysterus' means ‘womb’, and thus the uterus literally caused ‘hysteria’. The uterus was thought to be the organ responsible for physical problems that led to neuroses.

During this time period, it was not uncommon for wives and daughters to be committed to an insane asylum for reasons of “lunacy”.  Women were even “put away” for gong through menopause.  Husbands would put them away, divorce them, then marry a much younger woman.  No one was allowed to visit the woman in the insane asylum, and they were locked up until they died.  Many times, the husbands would simply say that the woman had died.  Women in this situation were subjected to conditions of poor heating, substandard food, unsanitary and unclean conditions, and communicable diseases spread widely in this environment, which sometimes was adjacent to or part of a prison system (Sansone 2012).

In the 1850’s, Edward Tilt, MD determined that “the keystone of mental pathology” was the uterus.  The Greek hysterus means ‘womb’, and thus the uterus caused ‘hysteria’. 

By 1870, the surgical procedure of hysterectomy was perfected as a quick method to deal with menopausal complaints.  Surgeons took out not only the uterus, but also the ovaries and the cervix.  

It seems that the hysterectomy is still an ultimate alternative to menopause.  Is this a good thing?  In a 2004 study, it was found that Counseling and a Second Opinion physician determined that 98% of hysterectomies were not needed.  Couple that with a 2010 study that estimated that about 500,000 hysterectomies are performed per year in the USA, such that 40% of all women over age 45 do not have a uterus.  How many of these women are offered or are placed on hormone replacement therapy?  

Should postmenopausal women, including those with Surgical Menopause, take hormones?  For many practicing physicians, this is no longer a professional 'debate', it is a public debate that began with the Women's Health Initiative in 1992.   Today, the issues are clear, as the treatment is individualized.  Stay tuned for more.

As 2013 nears, it is important to understand that menopause is still a taboo subject for many women, in many cultures, and throughout the world.  Women are embarrassed to talk about it, and some clam up when the doctor starts asking questions.  Only after effective rapport is established will some women discuss the subject so that symptoms, time increments, and a proper Medical History can be reported.  Women need to speak freely about the matter, so that the medical field can determine the problem, and work towards a solution for each individual woman.  What is it all about?  Quality of life.  It's a Quality of Life issue.


Body Logic MD. The History of Menopause, 2012.

Buchanan, Paul A.  Wild yam restores sex drive during menopause.  Ezine Articles, 2012.

eHow.  How to naturally treat hot flashes and menopausal symptoms, 2012.

Foxcroft, L. The mad, mad menopause: Louise Foxcroft charts its fascinating, and sometimes gruesome, history.  April 9, 2009.

Merck Manual: Diagnosis & Therapy.  New York:  Merck and Co., 1899.

Savage George.  A Lecture on the mental disorders of the climacteric.  The Lancet, 1903.

Singh A., et al.  A historical perspective on menopause and menopausal age.  Bull Indian Inst Hist Med Hyderabad 2002 Jul-Dec; 32(2):121-35.

Speroff L.  Clinical Gynecologic endocrinology and infertility.  6th Edition. Baltimore, MD: Williams and Wilkins; 1999.

Utian WH, et al.  Effect of raloxifine on quality of life: a prospective study using the Utian Quality of Life (UQOL) scale.  Menopause 2004 Jay-Jun:11(3):275-80.

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