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The Female Body in History - A Guide to the Becker's Holdings: Perceptions of the Female Body

Gynecology and obstetrics is one of the key collection strengths in Archives and Rare Books. The Becker’s holdings on this topic cover a broad span of time, from the 16th to 20th centuries, and include atlases, texts, and dictionaries.

Female as Inverted Male

This illustration of Andreas Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica shows the female vagina appearing remarkably like an inverted penis.

The Mysterious Female Anatomy

Illustration of the female reproductive tract from Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks.  The uterine horns are a prominent feature.

The female reproductive system was something of a mystery for several centuries, and was described in a variety of ways throughout antiquity and the early modern period.  The 2nd century Roman physician Galen saw the two sexes as complementary to each other, and described the female genitalia as being an inverse of the male – the uterus was essentially an internal scrotum, and the ovaries were testes.  Others saw the uterus as distinctively female, sometimes as the site of noxious substances that could not possibly have a male counterpart. 

How the female reproductive system functioned was also a matter of some debate.  The most infamous example of this is perhaps the idea of the “wandering uterus,” which has its origins in ancient Greece.  Hippocrates characterized the uterus an independent entity that wandered throughout the female body, bumping up against other organs and causing various medical problems.  This unfortunate state could be managed through marriage – frequent intercourse and child bearing would keep the womb stable – or through treatments such as fumigation and irrigation if the womb was already roaming freely.   The belief that the uterus was responsible for a variety of illness – known collectively as “hysteria” – persisted until the early 20th century.

Subject Guide

Idealized Motherhood

Images from John C. Gunn's Gunn's Domestic medicine, or Poor man's friend in the hours of affliction, pain, and sickness, published in 1830.