British psychiatrist Dally (Understanding, 1979, etc.) offers a refreshingly evenhanded history of the development of...


WOMEN UNDER THE KNIFE: A History of Surgery

British psychiatrist Dally (Understanding, 1979, etc.) offers a refreshingly evenhanded history of the development of gynecological science in the 19th and 20th centuries--a process, she says, that was neither as triumphantly beneficial nor as deliberately abusive as other historians have claimed. Skeptical of traditional histories of medicine (often written by retired doctors) that represent the discipline as a steady march toward perfection, as well as of revisionist examinations that depict doctors as usurpers of woman's traditional healing role and as sadistic experimenters on a helpless female population, Dally makes use of her own experience as a female doctor to examine the conflicting claims. Describing the sudden blossoming of the medical profession in the early 1800's as a natural result of the introduction of anesthetics, she points out that the obvious, most compliant subjects for a generation of newly inspired surgeons were women (whose organs had previously been beyond surgeons' reach) and the poor (who were willing to risk experimental surgery for low-cost pain relief)--though many strange operations were performed on men and the wealthy as well. While enormous increases in gynecological knowledge were achieved through operations on genuine ailments, such as ovarian cysts, the Victorian view of women as delicate ""vessels"" and the attribution of an increasing number of ills to poorly functioning parts of the female anatomy also led to a shocking number of unnecessary ovariectomies, hysterectomies, and even clitoridectomies. Dally points out that female patients complied eagerly with many of these practices, some motivated by real pain, others by a desire to please, and still others by a neurotic need for attention. Her conclusion--that the history of medicine is a typically human, foible-filled tale in which the powerless are exploited even while genuine benefits are gained--introduces a levelheaded view to the current debate. Thorough and engaging.

Pub Date: March 1, 1992

ISBN: 0785821104

Page Count: 280

Publisher: Routledge

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1992