Was menopause always thought of as menopause? What did people in past centuries and millennia make of menopausal symptoms? When did the word fist appear? These are some of the questions we are looking at today as we peer into history.
Unfortunately, much of our understanding of menopause and the role of women post-menopause remains stilted by the stigmas around any discussion of women’s reproductive health. Despite this, here are some noteworthy mentions of menopause throughout time. Unsurprisingly, since the recorders of history were men for much of it, the records we do have are usually a male perspective of menopause.
This one came to us as a surprise! Did you know Aristotle, famed Greek philosopher and polymath was one of the first to write about menopause? Though he did not write in his own name, he commented that ‘the menses cease in most women around the fortieth year’, which he deemed was the average age women stopped having children. Other Hippocratic writings at the time started to compare the diseases experienced during puberty as also occurring later in life, ‘the body is especially susceptible to these diseases (like gout, for example) between the fourteenth and forty-second years’. Pliny the Elder, ancient Roman author and naturalist had similar comments within his writing.
The use of the actual term ‘menopause’ was first written in the nineteenth century, coined by French physician Charlies Pierre Louis De Gardanne in 1821. He wrote an article that year titled ‘Menopause: the Critical Age of Women’. De Gardanne found that peasant women would often have no complaints when entering the period of menopause, whereas those from middle to upper class backgrounds would experience more symptoms. At the time, doctors studied the difference in their lifestyles, through their diets, how much alcohol they drank, whether they spent much time outside. We do not have his conclusions, but wonder whether it was the alcohol intake and lack of exercise of wealthier women that increased their symptoms - or perhaps they were just more vocal in their complaints! His treatment of menopause was the first time it had been written about in a medical context.
Another perspective came later in the century, when Samuel Ashwell, an English gynaecologist did not believe the function of menopause to be a disease, but a phase of life. He wrote ‘there are healthy women who pass over this time without any inconvenience and many whose indisposition is both transient and slight’. Within his practice he advised women to abstain from drinking alcohol, to exercise regularly and try a vegetarian diet. Unfortunately, this forward-thinking mentality was overtaken by the strong Victorian notion that menopause was a mental illness. Women were treated for their hysteria through a mix of different chemicals, at times including substances like lead, morphine or even chloroform. Awful!
The twentieth century saw a shift in our understanding of menopause and how to treat it. After oestrogen was isolated in 1929 by biochemist Edward Doisy, advancements have continually been made towards hormone replacement therapy, as well as utilising these hormones for other causes within women’s health. The first pregnancy test was developed in 1928 and the first hormonal birth control pill was approved later in the century in 1960. Hormone replacement therapy also started in the 1960s, and became highly popular in the 1990s before crashing in popularity.
Today, the conversation and research around menopause continues to shift. Women have always experienced menopause, even if they did not call it what we call it today. In a world that becomes increasingly globalised and interconnected, women are increasingly aware of each other’s stories across countries and cultures, and are less and less hesitant to talk about this important phase in life.