JF Ptak Science Books Post 1109
A friend of mine started her facebook post writing “Ovary shipped out...”, a great piece of found story-beginnings, a great opening line, especially when ovariotomically removed from the rest of the sentence. Alex is an artist and medical/anatomical illustrator by trade, so I knew what she meant–but forgetting that made the segment even more lovely.
Aside from the fiction that the three words created and the half-word that I created/butchered, I wondered about when ovaries were first surgically removed, and then about how the ovary was seen (almost forever) as the home and birthing place of the fully-formed human delivered to it by men in the act of ya’ know. Ovarian surgery really didn’t exist until the early 19th century, when it was practiced with great success (especially for its time1) by Ephraim McDowell (1771-1830), in 1809 in Virginia–and it was also about the first great American contribution to gynaecology as well His first patient (“Mrs. Crawford”) sang her way through an anaesthesia-less procedure, surviving her illness and the surgery at a time when non-amputational surgery was half-fatal.2 There were other, limited reports of this procedure, but for reasons not clear to me it didn’t really start appearing as a general procedural possibility until mid-century. Anyway, before the 19th century, women with ovarian cysts were pretty much out of luck.
But the issue of the ovaries as ovens--of homunuclus and palingenesis and epigenesis, the imaginary male-dominant anatomy of reproduction–was pretty much somewhat solved by the end of the 18th century. Or at least the homunculus, the tiny but perfectly formed miniature human traveling along in sperm, was. This character is pictured here, riding in the squinty-eyed imagination of researcher Nicholas Hartsoeker3, who desperately wanted to see the thing, and which found itself published in his book Essai Dioptrique in 1695.
The woman as a simple baker of a gift of preformed life was a medical belief that helped perpetuate the supposed inferiority of women, and that the woman’s part in the procreative process was a simple oven. It was a difficult image/belief to resist, persisting well into the 19th century. Anyway, this is where my thinking took me–to the anatomically-inspired subjugation of women–from Alex’s comment.
1. This was still in the deep, dark time for hospitals and surgery, in general. Remember that Joseph Lister was still a half-century in the future with his revolutionary surgical practices that were invaluable to the cause of successful surgery. And hospitals in general were bad throughout Europe, though their story in England at this point was entirely different. The Brits really took steps forward in the treatment of the sick, and especially in the treatment of the poor sick, thanks to being a little awash, splashing around in waves of money provided by their contributions to the industrial Revolution. Funny how it takes major mounds of money-making to initiate good works like that, but, never mind the details–it was done, and hospitals in England during this period were comparative oases in regards to European/Continental hospitals.
** McDowell’s first three cases were all successful , finally published in the Eclectic Repository for 1816. This was the first real foray into this field by the pioneering American medical institutions; obstetrics and gynaecology before this, and particularly in the 18th century, was pretty much in the hands of the French (especially obstetrics) and the English, and to some degree the Italians (particularly with Mascagni, Santorini and Spallanzani).
**This is probably unkind and not particularly true of Hartsoeker, who never said that he actually saw the little men of sperm, and had simply postulated them. Maybe the squinty-eyed part was imbued in the minds of others, though it was Hartsoeker who drew the images of the homunucli to begin with. I think that he should’ve rested in his better cups–he was a gifted mathematician and a particularly good microscopist and optical person, and probably should’ve restricted his published biological theories to his notes.