Sexual Health Week

This week is in the UK, an awareness event promoted by FPA, a charity for promoting sexual health and open discussion. Here at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History, we house the Percy Skuy collection of historical contraception devices, and seek to tell the story not only of contraception in America, but also the long-standing fight for birth control (and continued issues of access).

James Ashton, The Book of Nature, Dittrick Museum Skuy Gallery

At the front of the gallery, we take a look at the reproductive and sexual body, from Aristotle’s Masterpiece to books by James Ashton and Charles Knowlton. Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy (1832), deemed “obscene” for its frank discussion of sex for pleasure and birth control, landed him in hot water. He was arrested twice, but the book lived on, and helped to change the conversation around a “taboo” topic.

Other sections of the museum describe the notorious Comstock Act of 1873 (Act of the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use), made contraception illegal in the USA, and which led to harrowing health

Diverse formulations and packaging of birth control pill products.

consequences from unwanted pregnancy to venereal diseases. Black market devices and pills offered unreliable and sometimes dangerous alternatives, and Comstock’s definition of  obscenity and pornography meant books were burned and useful, frank conversation repressed. Thought the act was at last repealed, vestiges of the law remained into the 1990s. [1]

Arguments about who had a right to control women’s reproduction, and what sexuality was for (that is, pleasure or merely procreation) continue today. Through the Skuy Gallery, we at the Dittrick hope to do our own small part in encouraging open discussion of healthy sexual practice. Come and see up–or visit out online exhibits here.

[1] Comstock Act, The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, <;

For the LOVE of Medical History

For our final #MuseumWeek post we’re talking about why we LOVE medical history and why we hope that love is contagious! #loveMW

It’s not uncommon for the Dittrick Medical History Center to be referred to a bit like a cabinet of curiosities,  a niche museum, or perhaps more kindly, a “hidden treasure.” Although we’ve always worked to make collections accessible and major public engagement efforts are underway, we still often have to make the case for the (sometimes not so) implicit question “Why should I care about medical history?”

The answer tends to go a little like this:

Medical history is the history of how we come into the world. Our Re-conceiving Birth gallery is not only about doctors, nurses, and midwives — it examines the experiences of women and babies from the 18th century to the 1940s. Beyond the particular questions of labor position, pregnancy diet, and types of forceps, this gallery calls visitors’ attention to larger, still pertinent questions: Is birth a normal or pathological event? Who’s experiences and knowledge are important during labor? Should birth hurt? How are difficult decisions made when both the mother and infant are at risk?

By framing these questions through history, we hope to add to modern debates that these are not new concerns and that “traditional” approaches are not singular or homogenous.

Medical history is the history of how we change and respond to our environments. Humans have faced a range of emerging health concerns through travel to new places, movement into cities, changing diets, and exposure to industrial hazards. Many of the museum’s exhibits examine both the impact of these shifts, such as crowded city-dwelling facilitating the transmission of infectious diseases, and how we respond to these novel health environments. For example, Cleveland was racked by a deadly and disfiguring smallpox epidemic in 1901 and 1902, which was halted through a coordination of efforts to develop and widely distribute a safe vaccine.

These stories speak to the dynamic relationship between humans and their environment and cautions against assumptions that medical progress has eliminated any risk of new health challenges.

Medical history is the history of how we manage pain and suffering. When visitors arrive at the museum, they are greeted with display cases that detail “If you were sick in…” various years throughout history. These exhibits contextualize both the conditions and therapeutics Americans encountered in 1810, 1860, and 1910 including purgatives and emetics of humoral medicine and the sanitizing devises and techniques developed under germ theory. The types of surgeries, pharmaceuticals, and instruments used by practitioners and the popular advertisements for health restoring or ensuring products reveal the way the body and illnesses are understood.

Conceptions of the body and what it means to be healthy are not static, but reflect contemporary challenges and concerns. For example, medicine during WWI developed ways to address mass trauma in the form of gunshot, shrapnel and shell wounds and fractures through pain-free, sterile surgeries that prevented patient shock and hemorrhage. Meanwhile, home front practitioners sought to ensure the continued well-being of citizens living under rations. We’re taking a closer look at these wartime public policies and their attempts to ensure health on April 7th.

Medical history is the history of how we mediate sexual relations and family size. The museum prominently features the Skuy Collection on the History of Contraception, the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of historical contraception artifacts. This space provides a chronological look at the way fertility has been understood and managed, starting with early texts like the 17th century Aristotle’s Masterpiece, through the 19th century Comstock Laws, the development of the birth control pill, to modern contraceptive devices. Controlling fertility is not a modern pursuit, but has been shaped through history by contemporary social and cultural values regarding family size, appropriate sexual behavior, and the alignment (or not) between biomedicine and popular beliefs about reproduction.

Today’s discussions about access to fertility controlling pharmaceuticals and procedures is part of a longer history of politicized decisions about what is best for certain bodies and for the general public at large. The gallery highlights that “best medical practices” have been occasionally overruled by social pressures against contraception, as well as how a lack of oversight in the development and use of some contraceptive technologies lead to suffering or death of unprotected citizens.

Medical history is the history of how and why we die. Even the way death is depicted — as a failure of medical treatment or an inevitable end — is shaped by the unique historical ways health has been understood. For example, diphtheria, once a deadly disease for children in the late 19th century, became both relatively treatable and preventable within a few decades through use of diphtheria antitoxin and large-scale immunization efforts.

Other exhibits tell about the detective-like work of medical practitioners in discovering the causes of death. For example, development of the stethoscope allowed physicians to hear inside the body, however what they heard was not immediately clear. Doctors used the stethoscope to listen to ill patients’ breathing and heartbeats in the early 19th century and attempted to treat their conditions. When the patients almost invariably died from their diseases, the practitioners conducted post-mortem  examinations to match the sound they’d heard with internal abnormalities. The Blaufox Hall of Diagnostic Instruments illustrates how this process led to an improved ability to diagnose pathologies in living patients while providing directed treatment for their particular needs. Understanding why and how we die improves how we interpret our bodily experiences into symptoms and causes for concern.

Our forensics collections offer a different way of understanding causes of death. New methods to detect poisons or cause of death not only reveal how our bodies function, but also speak to larger stories about personal relationships and the integration of science into courts of law.

Basically, medical history is the history of people. Through a shared focus on the biological, environmental, and social aspects of people’s lives, engaging with medical history not only allows for a more nuanced perspective on how people have lived, but tells us something about the diversity of challenges and responses that await us.


Condoms, Pills and More: The Contraceptive Historian’s Playground

Guest Post by Jessica Borge

If you worked in the North American birth control industry in the latter half of the twentieth century, you would have likely encountered Percy Skuy’s museum of contraceptive curiosities. Percy was a marketing man for the Canadian arm of Ortho Pharmaceutical, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson dealing in contraceptives and gynaecological care. Percy would go on to become president of the company. He began amassing contraceptive devices in 1965, and the collection soon attracted interest from far and wide. It was the time that family planning was gradually becoming an acceptable topic for open discussion in North America, and Percy realized that his personal interest could be put to work as a valuable educative tool. After all, the acceptance of an abstract idea, such as family planning, is greatly aided by physical familiarity with the actual technologies that make it workable.

Mini Museum Reference ImageThe collection evolved into a traveling ‘mini museum’ in a suitcase, whereby Percy could explain modern contraception’s long lineage to fascinated onlookers through a handful of key objects. The inspired ‘mini museum’ could be transported easily all over the world. Percy’s curatorial prowess soon necessitated a permanent home for the ever-expanding collection at Ortho Canada’s HQ in Don Mills. Today, the Percy Skuy Collection is on permanent display at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History. It continues to grow, year on year, as relevant technologies develop, and currently numbers over 1000 items.

The object collection is, however, but a part of the fascinating primary source material available to researchers at the Dittrick. Complimentary resources include a complete set of Ortho’s Canadian advertising for every product the Company produced. The Ortho range was not limited to contraception, but addressed the full reproductive cycle as well as gynaecological medicine. Products included Rarical iron supplement, Masse nipple cream, and menopausal therapeutics.

 The Dittrick is also home to Orthos’s scrapbooks. These are substantial clippings files containing news items from the Canadian press from the 1960s through to the early 1990s covering reproductive healthcare and the multimedia dissemination of contraceptive information. For anyone with an interest in the modern history of contraception in Canada, and the legacy of Ortho as a business, the scrapbooks offer immediate submersion into the treatment of the subject by popular and trade periodicals. The scope of the scrapbooks is not limited to Ortho; they proffer an overview of the birth control business as well as the complex consumer climate over four decades of dramatic change. For IMG_5970example, the scrapbooks contain fascinating trade literature on packaging and marketing.

The Percy Skuy Study Centre, a private study space, offers further resources for the curious historian to explore. It contains Percy’s own personal library and is available for researchers to peruse collected contemporary materials from his long tenure at Ortho. Of particular interest are hard-copy editions of the 1970s journal Family Planning Perspectives, and various manufacturer’s pamphlets discussing contraceptive products and techniques. This combined primary source material offers rich possibilities for research. Future topics might include Ortho’s pioneering work on RH Negative babies, Canadian access and contribution to new reproductive technologies, and even the broader history of contraceptive marketing in North America. The Canadian story of contraception can also be drawn into comparative studies; as a Commonwealth nation, Canada may be of particular interest for those studying the United Kingdom.

For myself, it was trade literature clippings in the Ortho scrapbooks that proved most stimulating. I was lucky enough to be granted a Dittrick Medical History Museum and Collection study award in April 2015, which I used to undertake research for my Doctoral thesis on the condom industry. In particular, I was interested in the coverage of Ortho’s entry into the condom market in the early 1970s. Ortho was a late starter into the condom business, principally because this highly effective method of contraception and prophylaxis was looked down upon in the mid-twentieth century. This was not unusual – to some minds, condoms were associated with itinerant sexual behavior, which in itself was considered socially undesirable.

Promo330 A Man's Guide to Preventing PregnancyNonetheless, by the time Ortho was ready to launch its first condom line, Conceptrol Shields, the contraceptive market had changed considerably. Oral contraceptives, which emerged in the 1960s, led to more exposure for family planning generally, and the display of rubber contraceptives had become permissible. In January 1970, Ottawa removed its restrictions on the distribution, advertising and general promotion of non-RX contraceptives, following an Ortho test campaign in the women’s magazine, Châtelaine. This meant that Ortho could exploit the new visibility of birth control with a sophisticated line of attractive consumer packaging. Shields launched in Canada October 1972, and in England the following summer. Ortho engaged Ogilvy, the advertising firm, to devise an image campaign for Shields condoms, which were billed as “the new male contraceptive for people who care”. A booklet, “A Man’s Guide to Preventing Pregnancy” was also offered free via a coupon.

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to James Edmonson, Jennifer Nieves, Brandy Schillace, Laura Travis, all of whom ensured that my time at the Dittrick was buoyant as well as productive. Last but not least, I thank Percy Skuy for his warm personal support, and without whom this wonderful collection would not be available.

Jessica Borge Bio

Jessica Borge graduated from the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advance Study, University of London, with an MA in Historical Research in 2012.  She is currently an AHRC Doctoral Candidate at Birkbeck, University of London, where she is writing up her thesis, “The London Rubber Company, the Condom and the Pill in 1960s Britain”. Jessica is the joint 2015 winner of the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health Van Foreest Prize (Best Paper by a Graduate Student) and is a recent Smithsonian International Placement Scheme fellow. In April 2015, Jessica was awarded a Dittrick Medical Museum Research Studentship to work with the Percy Skuy Collection.

J e s s i c a  B o r g e

AHRC Doctoral Candidate
[“The London Rubber Company, the Condom and the Pill in 1960s Britain”]
Birkbeck School of Arts
University of London


Winner: 2015 European Association for the History of Medicine and Health Van Foreest Prize
Best Paper by a Graduate Student

AHRC Image Gallery of Oral Contraceptive Advertising

How Orals Altered the Contraceptive Marketplace in 1960s Britain








Contraception or Bust: Marketing Around the Comstock Laws

Blog by Diana Suciu, student at Case Western Reserve University
Essay winner, USNA 287Q Gothic Science, SAGES 2015
Instructor: Dr. Brandy Schillace

Comic depicting Comstock: woman gave birth to a naked infant!

From the late 1800’s until the 1960’s, the distribution and acquisition of contraceptives was banned in many American States. It was a popular belief, upheld by the enactment of the Comstock Law, that contraception would lead to promiscuous behavior. Passed in 1873, the Comstock Law enforced a heavy ban on all paraphernalia or literature associated with the topics of pornography, erotica, and contraception (Sex in the City, 1840’s, Dittrick Museum). The law was named after Anthony Comstock, a man who crusaded against the ‘obscene’ and ‘immoral behaviors’ that were rampant in the streets of large American cities (People & Events: Anthony Comstock’s “Chastity). Comstock embraced Victorian ideals, believing that contraception would cause men and women to act indecently and would erode the standards of morality that prevailed during the turn of the 19th century (Sex in the City, 1840’s). He was instrumental in enforcing a law in which men and women were denied legal access to contraceptives. The United States of America became the only western nation in this time period to convict citizens for the advertisement, distribution, or use of birth control (People & Events: Anthony Comstock’s “Chastity” Laws).

In 1875 a woman named Lydia Pinkham made it possible to obtain abortive agents despite the ever-present contraceptives ban. Under very careful advertising, she marketed a vegetable compound for ‘the worst female complaints’ (Lydia Pinkham Vegetable Compound). Her home brewed herbal elixir was a nationwide success; women bought her product to prevent ‘uterine tumors’ or the ‘changes of life’ from causing pain to their spine or abdomen.’ Lydia Pinkham put her picture on every bottle of her product; her motherly face became a household emblem for women all across the country. She became a marketing pioneer who was widely successful in established her product, and made her name as recognizable as Coke or Heinz (Schulman, 24). Many women came to think of Lydia as a confidant who would answer their letters and would provide personal and sexual advice. Even after her death, staff members from her company would answer letters from her faithful customers (Lydia E. Pinkham: Life and Legacy).

Lydia Pinkham's Tablets
Lydia Pinkham’s Tablets

Her advertisements claimed “it will dissolve and expel tumors from the uterus in an early stage of development. The tendency to cancerous humors there is checked very speedily by its use. It removes faintness, flatulency, destroys all cravings for stimulants, and relieves weakness of the stomach” (Ad from 1881 for Lydia Pinkham’s Compound at the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health.). To a modern casual observer this type of advertisement seems to be directed towards women whom experienced menstrual discomforts and similar ailments. To the Victorian reader the advertisement reads differently: the vegetable compound would cure nausea, strange cravings, and flatulence plausibly caused by unwanted growths in the uterus, and it worked particularly well if the ‘growths’ were in the early stages of development (Ad from 1881 for Lydia Pinkham’s Compound at the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health.”). It was an open, but cryptic advertisement for contraceptives aimed directly at the user and was prescribed to be taken daily as a drink or a pill to give strength to a ‘woman’s system’.

Pinkham’s over the counter contraceptive made it possible for women to receive abortive agents without getting prosecuted by the Comstock Law. This made the vegetable compound a common item to be found on many women’s nightstand. Ambiguous advertising of contraceptive products became common place throughout the enforcement of the Comstock Law (Chesler, 70). Because she was hailed as a public icon, no product sold as well as Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. The company still exists under a different ownership, still branded under “Lydia Pinkham” and the compound’s main ingredients have not been altered from the traditional formula. Currently, the vegetable compound is marketed towards post-menopausal women, and “Lydia Pinkham” does not acknowledge the historical usages of the herbal elixir (Dietary Supplements and Pharmaceutical Products for Birth Control, PMS and Menopause). The company advertises that Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was formerly used for treatment of PMS and other hormone imbalances, which could be probable, considering the vague wording of the early advertisements, yet given the true historical comprehension of the advertisement, unlikely (Dietary Supplements and Pharmaceutical Products for Birth Control, PMS and Menopause). Looking at the historical usages of the herbs versus their modern medical uses, we understand why the formula is now being used for post-menopausal symptoms and not for treating PMS. There are five main ingredients of the vegetable compound that are still the active ingredients in the current formula: Pleurisy root, Life root, fenugreek, unicorn root, and black cohosh (Dietary Supplements and Pharmaceutical Products for Birth Control, PMS and Menopause).

Another of the ‘female pills’ on display at Dittrick Museum–Dr. Bronson, for “obstruction”

Pleurisy root, also known as common milkweed, was historically used in the Americas as an oral contraceptive, as well as an anti-inflammatory agent. Modern medicine regards the herb as a mild anti-inflammatory, a reliever of coughs and mucus build up, and an estrogenic (Pleurisy Root – Herbal Encyclopedia). This root should not be consumed by pregnant women as it is dangerous for the health of a developing fetus and taken in high enough and repeated dosages can induce miscarriage. Still, the estrogenic and anti-inflammatory properties of the root make it appropriate for women going through the stresses of menopause (Pleurisy Root – Herbal Encyclopedia). Here we notice that while the compound’s main ingredients have been preserved, “Lydia Pinkham” is targeting a different market segment effectively avoiding direct competition with the latest contraceptive products. Life root, commonly known as yellow ragweed, has many medical uses. The roots have been used as an anti-inflammatory as well as a blood stimulant to help regulate the menstruation cycle and decrease menstrual pain in women. Life root root is known as an emmenagogues, a plant that stimulates blood flow to the uterus, which can stimulate menstruation or prevent pregnancy (Ragwort – Herbal Encyclopedia). Fenugreek, Unicorn Root, and Black cohosh are all forms of emmenagogues that are currently not recommended to be consumed by pregnant women, and have historically been used as abortive agents. Emmenagogues also have strong estrogenic properties and can be used as an alternative for women who cannot take hormone replacement therapy for menopause (Black Cohosh). Just like Coke & Heinz, Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound survived the passage of time and successfully redefined itself to a new consumer group without exposing its weakness by competing head-to-head with a modernly engineered contraceptive drug. The compound was the right medicine for the time when the Comstock Law blocked legal access to contraceptives.

Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was sold by all druggists and apothecaries throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Ad from 1881 for Lydia Pinkham’s Compound at the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health.”). Her product sold millions of bottles, and Mrs. Pinkham became a strong public figure. She was able to give advice to women on sexuality and personal care. Also, she drew attention to serious female medical issues that were being ignored by standard medical practice. Without the Comstock Law men would have had access to condoms and women to diaphragms, and her medicine may have not been so successful. In an ironic manor, what should have stopped her, created a need in the market. As much as a progressive woman like Lydia Pinkham had to despair at the Comstock Law, it also created new possibilities for women to find social progress despite political oppression.

Works Cited

“Ad from 1881 for Lydia Pinkham’s Compound at the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health.” Ad from 1881 for Lydia Pinkham’s Compound at the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health. Web. 4 Feb. 2015. <;.

“Black Cohosh.” University of Maryland Medical Center. Web. 7 Feb. 2015. <;.

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. 70-75. Print.

“Dietary Supplements and Pharmaceutical Products for Birth Control, PMS and Menopause.” Web. 3 Feb. 2015. <;.

Dittrick Museum. “Lydia Pinkham Vegetable Compound”. Case Western Reserve university: Dittrick Museum,2015. Placard

Dittrick Museum. “Sex in the City, 1840’s”. Case Western Reserve university: Dittrick Museum,2015. Placard

“Lydia E. Pinkham: Life and Legacy.” Museum of Health Care Blog. 19 June 2014. Web. 2 Feb. 2015. <;.

“People & Events: Anthony Comstock’s “Chastity” Laws.” PBS. PBS. Web. 1 Feb. 2015. <;.

“Pleurisy Root – Herbal Encyclopedia.” Herbal Encyclopedia. 28 Dec. 2010. Web. 1 Feb. 2015. <;.

“Ragwort – Herbal Encyclopedia.” Herbal Encyclopedia. 28 Dec. 2010. Web. 1 Feb. 2015. <;.

Schulman, Bruce J. Making the American Century: Essays on the Political Culture of Twentieth Century America. Oxford: Oxford UP, USA, 2014.20-24 Print.

Check that Temperature! Rhythm Method, Thermometers, and the Gynodate

unnamedSex, contraception, and reproduction: if you think those are topics best avoided in a museum, think again! Next week, the Dittrick hosts its annual Percy Skuy Lecture on the History of Contraception, and this time, it’s all about temperature. Hot under the collar? It might be your cycle! Leo J. Latz, a Chicago doctor, first championed the Rhythm Method (based on work by Ogino-Knaus) in the United States. In 1932 Latz published The Rhythm of Sterility and Fertility in Women, which sold over 200,000 copies by 1942; he contended that the “findings of modern science disclose a rational, natural, and ethical means to space births and to regulate intelligently the number of children.” This coming Thursday, April 9th, come hear about the use of thermometers and the rhythm method to control fertility–lecture by Dianna Day, followed by a reception upstairs in the contraception gallery The event is FREE, but please do RSVP to ensure a seat: Want to learn more about contraception’s contested history? Here are some tidbits from our archive–and we hope to see you next week!

The-Rhythm-1934-coverRHYTHM METHOD
How did it work? Latz advised avoiding intercourse for eight days: for women with a regular menstrual cycle, this began five days before ovulation, with an extra three days tacked on for safety’s sake. As a devout Roman Catholic, Latz advanced this method of fertility control as more in line with Church teachings. He published pamphlets on rhythm for priests to distribute to couples, and parish bingo games gave out his book as a prize. Many shared Leo Latz’s faith in the science behind the Ogino-Knaus findings. But applying them to birth control proved not so simple, nor straightforward. Calculating the time of ovulation can still be tricky. It varies from woman to woman, and a woman can ovulate at a different time each month. Stress, illness, or interruptions in normal routine can also alter a woman’s cycle. Despite these uncertainties, the Ogino-Knaus method caught on, as evidenced by the proliferation of rhythm method calculators after 1930. Companies produced graphs, wheels, calendars, and slide rules, which cost from 10¢ to $5. In 1955 over 65% of Catholic women surveyed said they used Rhythm… And of course, given that is was a private means of controlling fertility, many more likely took advantage.

Ironically, Leo Latz felt biting backlash for all his efforts to bring an acceptable form of contraception to Catholics. Some felt he went too far. When Latz published The Rhythm in 1932 he served on the medical faculty of Loyola University. According to Leslie Tentler, writing in Catholics and Contraception: An American History (2004), Latz “was abruptly fired from that position in August of 1934,” and this action “was almost certainly a direct result of Latz’s prominent association with the cause of rhythm.” In 1935 Latz confessed to his friend Father Joseph Reiner, S.J., that no one “knew the anguish and dishonor I …suffered, when people said: ‘I heard you were thrown out of the University.” –Jim Edmonson (see original post here)

gynodate 2009-004-frontGYNODATE
A later variant of rhythm calculator was known as the “Gynodate.” Swiss clockmaker Jaquet introduced the “Gynodate” in 1958. It combined a regular alarm clock and a gauge to calculate the “safe period” as directed by Hermann Knaus. Jaquet claimed it “indispensable for every woman for natural birth control.” The Museum of contraception and abortion in Vienna, Austria, had the associated ephemera (pictured here). The thing that we like best about the “gynodate” is its stylish concealment of its function. Looks like a nice, if simple, alarm clock when the Gynodate 2 high resdecorative bezel is closed. But lift the hinged cover and you reveal adjustable dials to set for the onset and end of the monthly period, and hence gauge the days of fertility. It’s reminiscent of oral contraceptive dispensers in the form of lipstick containers or dialpak dispensers disguised as facial powder compacts…Certainly not the first, nor the last, time that designers strived to camouflage the purpose of a medical device. Sometimes this was done to conceal an object’s function from unwitting patients (as in the case of medical furniture in the 1880s), while at other times it was done to safeguard personal dignity, as in the concealment of contraceptive purpose of the object at hand, the “gynodate”. –Jim Edmonson (see original post here)