Out of the Abyss: The Surgical Exploration of Maternal Medicine 1860-1890

  • Laura Neff (Speaker)

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipation in conference


Perceptions of Pregnancy Conference hosted at the University of Hertfordshire

Surgeons and physicians believed that abdominal operations were unmanageable in the mid-nineteenth century; yet, within a mere fifty years abdominal surgeries were routinely executed. Male abdominal surgery was rare and considered outside the applied practices of internal surgery as growths such as tumours or cancers were linked to reproductive development. A cohort of influential surgeons began their careers only performing such operations on women in extreme cases. Indeed, the surgeons themselves combined the treatment of the diseases of women with the development of abdominal surgery. Thus, women as patients experienced dangerous and exploratory procedures with instances of difficult deliveries, complicated pregnancies or reproductive tumours each presenting what clinicians perceived as urgent and necessary entry into the abdominal cavity. Within these texts, surgeons imagined a female form that was unpredictable and abnormal. In turn, this led surgeons to construct female bodies as in a state of constant flux, requiring surgical intervention to avoid danger—yet, many of these procedures exposed women and their unborn children to infection, disease and untimely death. Abdominal surgeons in the late-nineteenth century fluctuated between surgical specialisms. The narrative around the social and cultural anxieties surrounding surgery and the diseases of women lacks a somewhat cohesive and traceable history. Nevertheless, this complexity requires in-depth and careful analysis as the bodies of women are constantly renegotiated by social and cultural norms. This talk will examine how obstetric surgeons, recognized by the Royal College of Surgeon’s Charter in 1884, as well as general surgeons, practised risky abdominal operations on the bodies of women.
Period16 Jul 201418 Jul 2014
Event typeOther


  • History of Medicine
  • Reproduction
  • Pregnancy
  • Maternal Health