A History of the Menopause

We’ve often talked about the taboos and troubles we face when talking about the menopause in modern society. The stigma, the discomfort, and the lack of information can feel like a war that needs to be won and a cause we’re willing to fight for. Yet, while we’ve still got a long way to go, it’s important to recognize how far we’ve come.

The first reference to menopause came from Greek philosopher Aristotle, who noted that “menstrual discharge” stopped usually between the ages of 40 and 50, and beyond then women stopped bearing children. (Parkin, 2003) The next significant mention of menopause came in the late 11th century from female medic Trotula de Ruggiero, a pioneer in female medicine from Salerno, Italy, who published a two-part medical treatise containing influential information on the menopause that quickly spread through England. (Foxcroft, 2011)

The term “menopause” was first coined in 1821 by French physician Dr. Charles Negrier, who attributed women’s complaints of depression, hot flushes and irregular periods to problems of the uterus. (Harpaz, 2013) Doctors were quick to diagnose women with “hysteria” – coming from the Greek word “hysterus” which literally means “womb.” That is, doctors thought that the uterus or womb was responsible for neuroses in women.

However, it wasn’t until the late 1920s, under 100 years ago, that doctors began recognising the connection between hormones and menopause. Then, in 1942, the first modern commercial hormone prescription Premarin (made from extraction from pregnant horses’ urine) came to market. (Hess & Farrell, 2009) Even so, the prescription of hormone therapy tended to be for the short-term, and many women resorted to home therapies (including the use of liquor to ease anxiety and pain) to handle their menopause.

The landscape started to drastically change in 1963, when gynaecologist Robert Wilson and his wife published a scientific article highlighting the medical symptoms and consequences of the menopause and demanding better treatment in the medical world. Drug companies then became involved and developed modern Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) treatments, which were commonly prescribed as the decades passed. (Houck, 2002)

The increased involvement of women in politics, public discourse and the workforce through the second half of the 20th century, along with the rising population of baby boomers going through the menopause, have been driving forces in breaking the silence and stigma of menopause. The menopause still remains an uncomfortable subject for many, filled with antiquated myths and uncertainties about treatments and symptoms. And while modern day medicine is a relatively new breakthrough in the history of menopause, it’s important to recognize just how much women have had to go through in the past and the trailblazers in medicine and everyday society that have contributed to making a change for us all.


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