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In genealogical research, I have found a woman in the 1880 US Census in the Institute for Women and Children in New York City.Her illness is listed as "Uterine Disease". The Women's Medical College was affiliated with this hospital. The patients with Uterine Disease or Neurathenia are grouped together, then Pregnancy or Confinement, followed by one Opthalmia [sic] and one abscess.

Uterine Disease is still a term in use today but it looks like it has a more narrow definition than in the 1880s. I've looked at a number of lists of obsolete medical terms and it was not included on any of them but I imagine that it had a broader use in the past, possibly being similar to Hysteria or a catch-all for different conditions. The lists did include Womb Fever and Childbirth Fever.

The woman in question is 33 and if she is who I think she is, she is said by the family genealogy to have died in her early 30s of appendicitis. Her most recent child was born in 1878. Would the term Uterine Disease have covered things like Uterine or Ovarian Cancer or Syphilis that a prominent family would have wished to keep quiet? The family genealogy also claims that she was the mother of a child born in 1883. I'm trying to figure out who were the actual birth parents of the 1883 child. Currently the most likely suspects are a half sister of the woman who died and the nephew of her husband, so it makes sense that she was raised as a full sibling to the others by the maternal grandmother.

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  • I hope noone will be publishing any conclusions in the context of a private human being who is no longer here to consent 300 years later ... which seems to have suffered enough.
    – matanox
    Feb 28 at 19:24
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    No publishing just private communication with the great grandson of the woman in question. I'm just trying to understand what trauma happened in this family. Feb 29 at 20:41

1 Answer 1

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Uterine disease in this case is an umbrella term for psychiatric disorders associated with women at the time and thought to be caused by disorders of the female reproductive system. You may be familiar with the term Hysteria, which was a closely related, if not the same, "disorder". In the case of "uterine disease" it was most likely mental illnesses associated with some condition that seemingly affected the uterus or ovaries or was "caused" by the uterus or ovaries, whether it be a physical condition or a mental condition.

I use the quote marks ("") around the words above and below, because these days we do not associate the cause(s) to be related to the female reproductive system, but would rather classify them under mental health, be it stress-related or depression or any other mental condition. There is no causative relationship between the reproductive system and mental health to our knowledge today, and mental health conditions are classified completely differently today compared to the 1800's.

The origins of this term stretch back a few thousand years to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, who associated the uterus with episodes of psychiatric disorders. The Greek for the uterus is "Hystera", which gives us the origin of the word "hysteria". I believe Hippocrates, the "Father of Medicine" was the first person to use the term hysteria that we know of.

For evidence, I found an article from 1885 in what is now the British Journal of Psychiatry, but at the time was called the Journal of Mental Science:

  • Wiglesworth J. On Uterine Disease and Insanity. Journal of Mental Science. 1885;30(132):509-531. doi:10.1192/S0368315X00230600

To quote the first paragraph:

The question of the relation between Uterine Disease and Insanity is one which, though at different times it has attracted much attention, is yet very far from being thoroughly elucidated. On the one hand the subject is mixed up with so-called "Hysterical Insanity," and on the other with "Amenorrhreal Insanity," concerning the former of which it may be said that but little evidence has been advanced to prove its dependence upon distinct physical disease in the internal organs of reproduction; and, as regards the latter, it needs but little observation in an asylum to show that in the majority of cases in which Amenorrhrea is associated with insanity, the suppression of the menses is merely a symptom, and in no sense the cause of the disease.

In the article, the author attempts to link and expound upon the various reports of uterine disease and mental illnesses, particularly insanity. Physicians at the time were well aware of physical disorders of the female reproductive system (see Treatize on the Disorders of Women by Alexander Skene, D Appelton and Company, 1890), but were just working out that it wasn't actually these that were causing mental illness.

I also found a report from Mental Health Portland (PDF) that lists the causes of admission into the Oregon State Insane Asylum between 1894 and 1896, which includes "uterine disease", along with things like "puerperal trouble", which presumably would now be known as postpartum depression, or possibly postpartum psychosis.

These conditions would have been grouped in with Neurasthenia as a part of what was thought to be a general "weakness of the nerves", brought about by "exhaustion of the nervous system's energy". I believe that today these symptoms would describe depression and/or anxiety or similar mental health problems.

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    I use the quote marks ("") around the words above and below, because these days we do not associate the cause(s) to be related to the female reproductive system, but would rather classify them under mental health, be it stress-related or depression or any other mental condition. I think it is worth it to say that not only do we classify psychiatric disorders and mental health differently today, but also that there is no evidence of any causative link between the female reproductive system and mental illness and this model is completely wrong and against modern knowledge.
    – Narusan
    Feb 28 at 9:32
  • @Narusan succinctly put - that's what I was aiming for; I'll edit that in
    – bob1
    Feb 28 at 19:53
  • @Narusan - While I agree with you, is it also true of postpartum depression? (Sorry, so far off topic of question.) Mar 1 at 10:29
  • @anongoodnurse Point well taken, I think this would actually be an excellent question in and of itself. From my understanding and what I glanced through the literature, there are many contributing factors to PPD and PPP being discussed, psychosocial and genetic factors, but also sleep deprivation being the most prominent. But of course, endocrine changes after pregnancy can and is also being discussed as a factor (i.e. PMID 29695824). Other authors go as far and classify PPD simply as a type of adjustment disorder (doi.org/10.1016/0272-7358(92)90068-J)
    – Narusan
    Mar 1 at 11:10
  • @Narusan - I also had a look through the literature as I pondered this. I find that it's all over the place, and some of the speculation I encountered is downright bizarre. Mar 1 at 16:50

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