While I’ve been waiting for a date for my upcoming surgery (yep, still waiting, c’mon NHS don’t let me down, else I’ll have to take back all my #welovetheNHS tweets), I’ve been reading up on hysterectomies, as you do.

So anyway, as many of you will know, hysterectomies are basically called that because way back when the Ancient Greeks decided that because it was only women who suffered from psychological ailments (?!) the source of all the trouble must be our wombs, because we’ve got them and men haven’t. The word hysteria comes from the Greek word for a womb, hence the term “an hysterectomy”, the surgical removal of the uterus.

Up until the 20th century hysteria was a common medical diagnosis for women, taking in any number of otherwise unexplainable symptoms. I’ll let my old friend, 19th century medic, Pye Henry Chavasse explain:

There is in this country, at the present time, a vast amount of womb diseases, much of which, by judicious management, might altogether be prevented; but really as long as rich wives live a life of excitement, of luxury, of idleness, and of stimulants, there is but little chance of a diminution of the same.

Uterine ailment-womb ailment-is a fruitful source of a lady’s illness; indeed, I will go so far as to affirm that uterine complaints are almost always, more or less, mixed up with a woman’s illness; hence, the womb has, by a medical man, to be considered in all the diseases and disorders appertaining both to girlhood and to womanhood……

….A large family of children, repeated miscarriages, and profuse menstruation, are three common causes of hysteria; indeed, anything and everything that produces debility will induce hysteria.

There are two classes of wives most liable to hysteria, namely, those who have had too many children, and those who have had none at all. Both these conditions of wifehood are detrimental to health; but of the two the childless wife is far more liable to hysteria, and to many other diseases, than is the prolific mother.

Diseases of the womb and of the breast are more likely to fasten, especially at “change of life,” upon a childless than upon a prolific wife. This fact for it is a fact ought to be very consolatory to a mother who is burdened with, and weakened by, a numerous progeny.

It is an unnatural state of things for a wife to be childless, as frequently from preventable causes alas! too often many are; but so it is, and so it will be, until more attention be paid to the subject until the importance of healthy menstruation be more insisted upon than it is, or has been and until proper treatment be adopted to rectify the wide-spread evil.

Hysterical patients need not despair, as by strengthening their systems, their wombs especially, with judicious treatment, hysteria may generally be cured.

Now hysteria causes a wretched train of symptoms, mimicking almost every disease that flesh is heir to. Menstruation in nearly all cases of hysteria is more or less at fault; it is either too profuse, or too deficient,or absent altogether; so that, in point of fact, hysteria and malmenstruation generally go hand-in-hand together. There is another peculiarity of hysteria; it generally attacks the delicate, those with poor appetites, those with languid circulations with cold hands and cold feet, and those subject, in the winter time, to chilblains.

I will enumerate a few of the symptoms of hysteria to show its Protean form; if I were to dwell on all the symptoms, this book would not be large enough to hold them! The head is often attacked with frightful pains, especially over one eye-brow ; the pain is said to resemble that of the driving of a nail into the skull. The patient is low-spirited and melancholy, and, without rhyme or reason, very tearful. She likes to mope in a corner, and to shun society, and looks gloomily on all things. She is subject to chokings in the throat she feels as though a ball were rising in it. If this sensation should be intensified, she will have a hysterical paroxysm. She has, at times, violent palpitation of the heart making her fancy that she has a diseased heart, when she has nothing of the kind. She has short and hurried breathing. She has pains in her left side, under the short ribs. She has oftentimes violent pains of the bosom making her very unhappy, as she firmly believes that she has cancer of the breast. She has noisy eructations and belchings of “wind,” and spasms of the stomach and rumblings of the bowels. She has neuralgic pains in different parts of the body, first in one place, then in another, so that at some period there is not a single part of her body that has not been more or less affected.

Hysteria frequently simulates paralysis; the patient complaining that she has suddenly lost all power in her arm or her leg, as the case may be. The paralytic symptom generally leaves as quickly as it comes; only to show itself again after the slightest worry or excitement, and sometimes even without any apparent cause whatever.

Hysteria will sometimes mimic either tetanus, or one particular form of tetanus, namely, lock-jaw, so that the patient’s body in the one case, will become bent like a bow she resting the while on her head or heels; or, in the other case, the jaws will be locked as in lock-jaw; but both the one and the other are unlike either tetanus or lock-jaw, as the two former are both evanescent, and unattended with danger; while the two latter, if real, are of longer continuance, and are most perilous.

There is another common symptom of hysteria, which is, the patient passing an immense quantity of clear, colourless, limpid urine like unto pump-water, the hysterical patient sometimes filling, in a very short time, a pot-de-chambre.

Flatulence is sometimes the torment of her life; it not only causes much discomfort, but frequently great pain. The wind wobbles about the bowels outrageously, first in one place, then in another, then rising in volumes to her throat, almost choking her the while her belly being, at times as largely distended as though she were big with child.

So hopefully, if all goes to plan, once I’ve had the op not only will I be much much better at doing the housework, but I’ll also stop moping in corners, being gloomy, farting, belching and peeing like an elephant.

Oh yes, and I’ll probably start going to church. Here’s Chavasse again:

There is another peculiarity of hysteria which is very characteristic of the complaint, namely, a hysterical patient is afraid to go either to church, or to any other place of worship. If she should venture there she feels as if she should be smothered or suffocated, or as though the roof were going to fall upon her; and, at the sound of the organ, she is inclined either to swoon away or to scream outright. Whenever she does go to church, she likes to sit near the door, in order that she may have plenty of air, and that she might be able, if she feel so inclined, to leave the church at any moment she having no confidence in herself. The going to church, then, is with many a hysterical patient a real agony, and sometimes even impossibility. Many persons cannot understand the feelings of hysterical patients not wishing to go to church; but doctors, who see much of the complaint, know that feeling thoroughly, and can enter into and appreciate the horrors they at such times experienced.

Do you know what? I know exactly what he’s talking about! That’s me that is, that hysterical woman he’s describing there. But I never realised my antipathy to religion had anything to do with my womb. I reckon this operation’s going to be a revelation.

But anyway, fond though I am of Chavasse (and yes, by the time I’m through with him I’ll have probably quoted the entire book, but that’s ok because it’s not in copyright), I have to admit I’m starting to become a tad suspicious about him. And that’s because I’ve recently discovered what he means when he talks about the need for a judicious and experienced medical man (i.e. him) to provide skilled and skilful treatment:

There is one consolation for a patient in her case being that of hysteria, hysteria is usually curable; while many other diseases that may counterfeit hysteria are incurable: all doubtful cases, of course, require the careful investigation, of a judicious and experienced medical man to decide; but whether a case be hysteria, or otherwise, skilled and skilful treatment is absolutely needed.

In Chavasse’s day, that treatment consisted of, ermm, how can I put this politely? Vaginal massage.

Apparently the medic would massage the woman’s pelvic region until she achieved what was then referred to as a hysterical paroxysm, although I suspect nowadays we might call it something else. But this could often take hours, so to save the poor chap from developing RSI, eventually, around 1870, a clockwork driven vibrator was invented.

According to Wikipedia: “By the turn of the century, the spread of home electricity brought the vibrator to the consumer market. The appeal of cheaper treatment in the privacy of one’s own home understandably made the vibrator a popular early home appliance. In fact, the electric home vibrator was on the market before many other home appliance ’essentials’: nine years before the electric vacuum cleaner and 10 years before the electric iron”

So it seems it’s all thanks to women like me with our womb ailments and our inability to step inside churches for fear of being struck by lightening that vibrators were invented.

Now I wonder if the judicious and skilful use of a vibrator could cure my fibroids…..



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