Skip to Main Content
The Nature of their Bodies

The Nature of their Bodies: Women and their Doctors in Victorian Canada

Wendy Mitchinson
Copyright Date: 1991
Pages: 474
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Nature of their Bodies
    Book Description:

    In documenting the changing nature of interventional medicine, Mitchinson considers the medical treatment of women within the context of what was available to physicians at the time.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8181-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-13)

    Underlying the work of social historians of medicine is the assumption that disease and medical care are culturally defined. The environment, the individual’s pattern of eating, normative values, and the scientific perceptions of any time period influence the definition and perception of disease. ‘What is sickness in one [civilization] might be chromosomal abnormality, crime, holiness, or sin in another.’¹ Medicine for social historians, then, is not totally scientific if scientific is taken to mean objective. Indeed, it is the non-scientific aspects of medicine that are its main attractions for, through a study of those aspects, the historian can come closer...

  5. Chapter One The Victorian World: Doctors, Science, and ‘Woman’
    (pp. 14-47)

    Referring to the physical abilities of woman, theGlobein 1890 reported that ‘she can swim, she can dance, she can ride; all these things she can do admirably and with ease to herself. But to run, nature most surely did not construct her.’ Like the domestic hen which at times attempts to fly, woman running displays ‘a kind of precipitate waddle with neither grace, nor fitness nor dignity.’¹ For men, running was natural, their bodies designed in such a way as to facilitate fast and sustained movement. Running was only one of many differentiations that Canadians made between the...

  6. Chapter Two The Frailty of Woman
    (pp. 48-76)

    In 1895 Mary Carus-Wilson, professor of engineering at McGill University, estimated that only one out of every ten women was healthy. Of the other nine, three would seek medical help from a doctor, three would medicate themselves, and the last three would simply endure their suffering.¹ Feminist historians have been intrigued by the nineteenth-century view of women’s predisposition to illness and the medical profession’s focus on the diseases of women. Some have argued that this stemmed either from general hostility towards women or from the complexity of the female body, which made it more interesting for physicians to treat. While...

  7. Chapter Three Three Mysteries: Puberty, Menstruation, and Menopause
    (pp. 77-98)

    ‘In a perfectly healthy woman, with the organs of generation in a normal condition, the function of menstruation is painlessly performed or, at most, is attended by slight symptoms of discomfort.’¹ With these words, Dr D.C. MacCallum of Montreal described how women should experience what was a normal physiological function. But how many ‘perfectly healthy’ women were there? From the last chapter, it would appear not very many. As we have seen, doctors proffered advice on the relative benefits of marriage versus celibacy, exercise, fashions, and general way of life in an effort to maintain women’s health. They were fighting...

  8. Chapter Four Sexuality in Women
    (pp. 99-124)

    In her diary entry of Friday, 8 April 1898, Lucy Montgomery recalled a passionate love affair she had had with a young man. She remembered the need she had felt to consummate their relationship and, even after the passage of time, what she wrote in her journal made the intensity of her desire unmistakable:

    The most horrible temptation swept over me – I remember to this minute its awful power – toyield– to let him stay where he was – to be his body and soul if that one night at least!

    What saved me? What held me...

  9. Chapter Five A Modern Issue Emerges: Birth Control
    (pp. 125-151)

    Just before Henriette Dessaulles’s marriage, her future sister-in-law Jos expressed the hope that her brother and Henriette would wait a few years before starting a family. That night, 15 January 1881, Henriette confided to her diary, ‘I suppose Jos doesn’t know any more about it than I do, but her words “I hope ...” imply that people only have children when they really want to.’ She felt this made sense, but the situation of poor families did not suggest to her that it was always possible. She recalled one family she knew in which ‘the mother and father were down...

  10. Chapter Six The Emergence of Medical Obstetrics
    (pp. 152-191)

    Although almost sixty years separated the childbirth descriptions of Mary O’Brien in rural Ontario and Nellie Bailey Bolton in Port Simpson, bc, the similarities between them suggest that little had changed. And for women in rural and outpost areas this was true. Many women were on their own with no one to help them except relatives, friends, and perhaps a midwife. Elsewhere in Canada, however, much had altered and, while the focus of this chapter is on some of those changes, we must always keep in mind the continuity of experience that was the reality for women such as Mary...

  11. Chapter Seven Changing Obstetric Care
    (pp. 192-230)

    Rose MacDonaugh entered the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax on 24 March 1893. According to her records, she had begun to menstruate at fifteen and was regular in doing so until her marriage in 1887. Her first child was a forceps delivery and since that birth she had suffered from lower back pain and a leucorrhoeal discharge. Despite her weakened condition, she gave birth to her second child just thirteen months after the birth of her first. Now, several years later, and diagnosed as having a lacerated cervix and perineum, on 30 March doctors at the Victoria General stitched the...

  12. Chapter Eight The Rise of Gynaecology
    (pp. 231-251)

    In a retrospect of gynaecology written in 1887, Lapthorn Smith, professor of jurisprudence and lecturer on gynaecology at Bishop’s College Medical Faculty, waxed eloquent on the advances made in that field. In no other had ‘the workers been more active.’ Surveying the scene, he could not hide his excitement at the possibilities that were opening up: ‘One sees many times a day in Berlin the uterus dilated, the mucous membrane scraped away until one hears the steel scratching on the raw muscle beneath, and then injected with tincture of iodine, and irrigated with sublimate or carbolic solution, without the slightest...

  13. Chapter Nine Gynaecological Surgery
    (pp. 252-277)

    Not all surgery on the reproductive/sexual system was focused on women. Men, too, were at risk. In July 1862 the minutes of the Halifax Medical Society described a case of a man who had suffered from fungus of the testicle. The treatment – removal of the offending organ.¹ Likewise the annual reports of the Montreal General Hospital more often than not mentioned amputation of the penis and/or testicles. The Surgical Department of the Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal, in 1895 had among its patients ninety men suffering from problems of the genito-urinary system.² But if operations did occur on men, they...

  14. Chapter Ten Women and Mental Health
    (pp. 278-311)

    ‘Every physician who has been in practice for any length of time must have come across cases of bed-ridden women, whose lives were being hopelessly wasted, and who were useless members of society; and such physicians must, as I have, felt humiliated by the sight, and more or less disappointed with medicine as a science and an art.’¹ With these words Dr A. Halliday of Stewiacke, ns, expressed the frustration that many physicians experienced when faced with patients suffering from no obvious physical ailments but from what was, in their opinion, more nebulous nervous complaints. And they feared the problem...

  15. Chapter Eleven Insane Women: Their Symptoms and Treatment
    (pp. 312-355)

    Martha Blodgett suffered from mania. Married with three children, two of whom had died of diphtheria, Martha was convinced her children were murdered and mutilated and talked on this and ‘kindred subjects.’ She was incapable of being reasoned with and, if the attempt were made, she became violent. The attending physician had even been obliged to use restraint by tying her hands to prevent her from breaking windows. Anne Burton was classified as melancholic. A thirty-seven-year-old farmer’s daughter, she was unable or unwilling to talk on any subject. She neglected her appearance and feared that something dreadful was going to...

  16. Conclusion
    (pp. 356-364)

    The operations performed at the London Asylum reveal how preconceived notions of women’s bodies could affect treatment and how physicians working within a relatively closed ideological system were often unable to consider reasons other than those that fit that system to explain what they saw before them. Culture and medicine are interconnected. Physicians did not and do not divorce themselves from the society in which they live and work. It would be expecting the impossible to think they could. For this reason, the history of medicine offers insight into more than the science of medicine.

    An examination of the medical...

  17. Note on Sources and Methodology
    (pp. 365-368)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 369-458)
  19. Medical Glossary
    (pp. 459-465)
  20. Picture Credits
    (pp. 466-466)
  21. Index
    (pp. 467-474)