The History of Medicine Collection at Rubenstein Library

This week, our Center co-hosted an event with the Duke University Rubenstein Library, showcasing their History of Medicine Collection. Attendees got to experience a hands-on and interactive tour of the items in the collection and learn about the history of women’s health.

Today, we sat down with GWHT’s newest Staff Member, Antonia Terrazas, to discuss her impressions from the event.

Why did you attend this event? What were you expecting?

Antonia Terrazas, GWHT Staff Member

I attended this event to learn about how women’s health has been discussed and regarded through the years, with some prior knowledge of the limitations that have persisted through the years, even until fairly recently. I was expecting to learn about the gynecological procedures, tools, and education of decades and centuries past, and how they have developed over time.

Did your experience align with your expectations?

Yes and no! Certainly some of the things I listed above were part of the event, but one area that was especially impressed on me was that the misinformation and mystery around the female reproductive system has not always kept the same pace of other medical knowledge. When talking about any medical history, it is easy to think of past medical knowledge as quaint or amusing because of the advances made since then. But in this case, many of the limitations were self-imposed — physicians had little experience with OBGYN health and education because that would require “improper” close contact with the female body, and physicians were men. It’s a strong reminder of how closely culture influences scientific inquiry!

With this in mind, it was somewhat jarring to see both how impressive some reproductive knowledge was in centuries past, and also how pervasive willful ignorance persisted.

What was the most interesting thing that you saw or learned?

One of the most interesting things I saw was the response from women’s rights movements starting the 1960s and 1970s to combat misinformation around reproductive health. I particularly loved the flyer distributed for women to prepare for their doctor’s appointments, and to know how to advocate for themselves. It was somehow both encouraging and disheartening to see how the same flyer would be useful and relevant for today’s healthcare system.

Do you have any takeaways you’d like to share?

Just the impression that these issues of mystery and misinformation are still very much present today when it comes to sexual and reproductive health. Women and other gender minorities still suffer from misinformation even from their doctors, and continue to need tools for gaining agency and knowledge. It is dangerous for us to think that we are beyond the mistakes of the past! This event also led me to do some more research on medical history and information by revisiting one of my favorite podcasts, Sawbones. A recent episode on “vagina shaming” is a great example of how misconceptions and shame persist today, as the hosts discuss backlash to Cardi B’s song, W.A.P. and place the discomfort and resistance to the song within a long history of denigrating women’s bodies. I am adding their episodes on birth control and medical illustration to my list as well!

Innovate with passion, deliver with compassion. www.DukeGWHT.org