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The Horrifying History of Gynecology Tools

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Posted on August 25 2017

A visit to the gynecologist can certainly ease some anxieties, but it’s by no means a relaxing experience. You’re in that crinkly paper dress, your feet up in those stirrups and your doctor’s about to get up close and personal, with their necessarily invasive gynecology tools.

The truth is, however, today what we think of as uncomfortable – the cold, plastic vaginal speculum entering us as the doctor kindly says, “you’re going to feel a little pressure” – is nothing compared to a gynecological visit of yore. And the story of how these gynecology tools came to be is, at times, horrifying.

Vaginal and anal specula have been around for a LONG time. Versions of the speculum have been discovered in texts dating back to 130 A.D and the Greek physician Galen. Artifacts have also been found in the dust of Pompeii (dating back as far as 79 A.D) and bare uncanny resemblance to an iron bottle opener (below).

These cringe worthy similarities continued for a long time. Throughout the 14th, 15th and 16th century, speculums (top image) look eerily close to medieval torture tools. These speculums would have to be sterilized after each use, which opened the door for infections and disease, and definitely laid the groundwork for today’s disposable model you see at your doctor’s office.

In the 19th century, J. Marion Sims developed the vaginal speculum with its hollow cylinder and rounded end divided into two hinged parts, better enabling dilation for observations of the cervix and vagina. His inventions and innovations in vaginal surgery have made him the “father of modern gynecology,” but his methods were horrific.

Sims would buy or borrow injured slave women to perform surgeries on, surrounded by other doctors and anyone who wanted to pay to watch him work. He would operate on these women for hours without anesthetics, even when the medicine became available. Sims also performed and supported clitoridectomies, the surgical removal of the clitoris (as a way of limiting female “hysteria” and “improper” sexual behavior).

It’s all so horrific. It definitely gives you cause you to question his high status (and statue in Central Park), and also maybe some gratitude for modern tools and the modern doctors who use them.

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