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  • Chaska Historical Society

Womens Health

from 'Will you live to be 100? A Retrospective on Health and Wellness in Chaska'

The term hysteria is derived from the Greek word for womb.

Breast cancer: As early as the 1700’s total mastectomies could be performed and were performed throughout the 19th century. However, because of the limited knowledge regarding how breast cancer spreads and no early detection of breast cancer most mastectomies did not improve survival rates. A plaster of extract of cloves placed on the cancerous sores after purging was thought to be a very effective cure.

Ovarian cancer: In the 19th century physicians were aware of ovarian cancer and would use nonsurgical treatments, such as injecting the affected area with Castille soap suds and using emetics.

Childbirth: Puerperal fever (infection) after childbirth was not uncommon, especially for women who gave birth in hospitals or were delivered by physicians. Death would ensue within 3 days after birth. Some hospitals experienced 20%- 25% death rate. Sometimes hospitals would have an epidemic of puerperal fever with a 100% death rate. By the 1880’s the occurrence of puerperal fever was connected to the physicians’ unclean hands and instruments. Puerperal fever was rare among midwife deliveries. However, the risk of infection went well into the 20th century. In the 1930’s sulpha drugs were discovered and antibiotics were available in the 1940’s. Now puerperal fever is very rare.

In the early 19th century Dr. J. Marion Sims perfected the technique of repairing tears that occurred during childbirth by using poor black women, whom he used as experimental subjects in exchange for food and housing.

In order to prevent pregnancies women would take birth control readily available in general stores, pharmacies and mail order, or have long periods of abstinence. Some women would perform abortions on themselves or take an abortifacient sold as a patent medicine or herbal concoctions.


Women’s Health Care, University of Toledo Libraries,

Myth and Misdiagnosis Have Plagued Women’s Health for Centuries, book review by Livia Gershon,

National Institutes for Health, Historical Timelines – 30 Years of Advancing Women’s Health,

The Attempt to Understand Puerperal Fever in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries: The Influence of Inflammation Theory, Christine Hallett, PhD. National Library of Medicine,

The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, A Medical History of Humanity, Roy Porter,W.W. Norton & Company 1999.


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