The history of anatomy and physiology was written by and about men. Throughout history, women were too busy supporting the human race to study at prestigious medical institutions, perform autopsies, attend lectures, travel throughout Europe, teach at universities, and lend their names to the things they discovered. Oh, and they were also forbidden to do so because um……they had vaginas? Anyway, because only people with penises could do these things, many body parts that are exclusive to people with vaginas were named after people with penises.
I review these body parts and processes and the men whose names became attached to them. I also bold and highlight perfectly appropriate alternative terms that should replace the outdated masculine names applied in previous centuries.
Most of the men whose names are associated with female body parts were physicians and experts in dissection and anatomy. Many of the early ones carved up animals and applied that knowledge to the human body since, in many places, dissecting a human body was illegal. But eventually, in the name of science, the dissection of deceased criminals was allowed. As women were less commonly criminals, less was known about structures particular to female bodies. By law, pregnant criminals condemned to death had to deliver their babies first, so the anatomy of pregnancy was unknown.
1. The Hymen. Hymenaeus (pre-history) is the Greek god of weddings, the son of Apollo and a Muse, described as a youth of delicate beauty who, being mistaken for a girl, was able to rescue groups of maidens by killing the pirates and robbers who had kidnapped them. For this he was rewarded with permission to marry his true love (of a higher station). He is said to have died suddenly on his wedding day but was resuscitated by Asclepius, the god of medicine. Hymen had a long and happy marriage and his name is invoked in prayer and song at weddings. In the 1500s, Andreas Vesalius, the father of modern anatomy, was first to apply the name ‘hymen’ to the vaginal membrane at the opening of the vagina.
2. Fallopian tubes. Gabriele Falloppio (1522-1562) was an Italian physician, anatomist, and botanist. He was a popular professor and had a following of students that accompanied him in his medical practice. Best known for his exacting study of human anatomy, especially the bones, ear, eye, and male and female reproductive organs. He performed a public human dissection at least once. He is said to have been first to describe the clitoris and the hymen, and taught against the idea that the penis entered the uterus during intercourse. He was the first to describe the “tuba uteri, ” uterine tubes, or oviducts between the uterus and ovary that were later named Fallopian tubes in his honor. He died from complications of tuberculosis at age 40.
3. Graffian follicles. Regnier de Graaf (1641-1673). Dr. Graff was a popular Dutch physician. Working with female rabbits, he noted the knobbly bumps on the ovary prior to ovulation. Even though he mistook the ovarian follicles for the actual egg, they were named Graffian follicles in his honor. Dr. Graff and his colleagues believed that the egg contained a tiny whole person who was stimulated by the male semen to seek shelter in the uterus, grow, and be born. This theory was called ‘ovism.’ It was subsequently challenged by Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek, the microscope expert who, spying the sperm under his microscope, believed that the tiny person (he called an animalcule) was fully formed in the sperm and was nourished by the egg to grow and be born. This theory was called ‘animalculism.’ Guess which theory came to dominate the culture?
4. Pouch of Douglas. James Douglas (1675-1742) was a respected Scottish male midwife and physician to the British Queen Caroline who kept him busy birthing eight children. He is known for his work in anatomy and botany. His name is attached to a rather obscure part of the female anatomy, specifically the space behind the uterus adjacent to the rectum. Also known as the rectouterine pouch or posterior cul-de-sac, it is the deepest point of the peritoneal cavity. I have no idea why his name is attached to it except that it is nearby in pelvic examinations and deliveries, of which he attended many.
5. Venous Plexis of Kobelt. George Kobelt (1804 – 1857), a German anatomist, is described as a “skinny, weakly little man, very nervous” who was nonetheless very popular with his students. He is primarily known for his study of reproductive organ anatomy. He identified an interconnected branching network of blood vessels (a vaginal venous plexis) that lies around the sides of the vagina making it highly vascular. Kobelt is credited by some for providing the first comprehensive and accurate description of the anatomy and function of the clitoris.
6. Halban’s fascia. Josef von Halban (1870-1937) carefully dissected the skin layers of the upper wall of the vagina and found an unexpectedly large number of blood vessels, nerve endings and muscles. He postulated that the same layer of tissue that becomes the upper vaginal wall in embryos that become female, becomes the erectile tissue surrounding the urethra (corpus spongiosum) of the penis in embryos that become male. Both areas similarly become vasocongested (swollen with blood) creating an area of pleasurable erotic response. (See the G-spot below.)
7. Braxton Hicks contractions. John Braxton Hicks (1823-1897) was an English obstetrician who was the first to describe in writing the painless non-labor uterine contractions that occur during pregnancy before the onset of real labor. He did not discover them. He wrote about them. Women discovered them during the first pregnancy A.D.
8. The G-spot. In 1950, Ernst Grafenberg (1881-1957), a German gynecologist, described an erotic zone, or an erotically sensitive area on the superior vaginal wall that can be a source of sexual stimulation to many women. (I thought Halban had this covered?) The media, stumbling on his name, called it instead, the G-spot. Researchers now think Halban and Grafenberg were describing stimulation of the clitoral bulbs under the vaginal wall. Dr. Grafenberg also developed the first commercial intrauterine device (IUD) for contraception. Margaret Sanger bailed him out of a Nazi prison in 1940.
9. Stein-Leventhal Syndrome. (1935) What we now more commonly call Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) used to be called Stein-Leventhal syndrome. That’s because Irving Stein and Michael Leventhal wrote about a number of patients with three symptoms: polycystic ovaries, hirsutism (increased body hair growth) and oligo/amenorrhea (few or no menses). They recognized that the three symptoms constituted a syndrome and suggested an effective therapy. PCOS is a common condition affecting 1 in every 7 to 17 women globally.
10. Arnold Kegel (1894-1972), was an American gynecologist who was the first physician to identify, conduct research on, and recommend pelvic floor exercises to tone the muscles around the vagina. The exercises help prevent urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse, and can improve sexual pleasure. Poor vaginal tone can result from childbirth and/or age.
Five cysts named after men: The physician/anatomists described below were skilled in embryonic anatomy and honored by having their names attached to cysts – even though all the cysts were attached to women. Cysts tend to form in and around vaginas and urethras where a bit of embryonic tissue may be left over during fetal development. Most cysts are asymptomatic, benign (not cancerous), and regress or go away on their own but others grow large and need to be surgically removed. Only about 1 in 200 persons ever develop one.
- Bartholin’s cyst. Caspar Bartholin the Younger (1655 – 1738). Caspar’s grandfather, the Elder, and two uncles were also famous clinicians and researchers whose work made the University of Copenhagen an acclaimed institution. The Bartholin glands, located on either side of the vaginal opening, secrete fluid that helps lubricate the vagina. Sometimes the vaginal introitus glands become obstructed and cause a relatively common and painless swelling called a Bartholin’s cyst.
- Wolffian cyst. Caspar Wolff (1733-1774) – is considered one of the founders of embryology. Studying chick embryos as they developed, Wolff observed the gradual formation of the organs, challenging the theory that each organism develops from a tiny version of an adult in the egg or the sperm. Wolff proposed that groups of different cells developed into the various tissues, organs, and systems. This was at odds with the church’s beliefs that leaned towards the pre-formed theories. Wolff’s career suffered for it. Nevertheless, his name is attached to the embryologic ducts that, in the presence of testosterone, form the male genital organs. In people with vaginas, a mesonephric duct cyst may form from remnants of the embryonic duct.
- Gartner’s cyst. Hermann Gartner (1785-1827) was born in the West Indies (a possession of Denmark) and became Danish surgeon and anatomist. He is known as the author of the first thorough description of the embryonic tubes that develop into the male reproductive organs. Remnants of the lower portion of the Wolffian ducts may form small cysts on the side walls of the vagina. Gartner’s duct cysts, also called mesonephric duct cysts, are sometimes associated with urethral or kidney abnormalities.
- Müllerian cyst. Peter Muller (1801 – 1858) was a German professor of anatomy and physiology, who also studied fish, reptiles, and snakes. The Mullerian ducts in embryos develop into the female reproductive organs: fallopian tubes, the uterus and the vagina and were named in his honor. They are the most common type of vaginal cysts and can occur anywhere in the vagina. Granted, Mullerian duct cyst is easier to pronounce than paramesonephric duct cyst.
- Skene’s gland cyst: Alexander Skene (1838-1900). Born and educated in Scotland, Dr. Skene became a Brooklyn-based physician, medical researcher, Union Army surgeon, obstetrician, professor, and founder of the American Gynecology Society. Famously known for his discovery and description of the para-urethral glands, later named Skene glands, that lubricate and drain into the urethra and sometimes form para-urethral gland cysts.
NOTE to the Reader: The author sincerely hopes that, in this age of an evolving lexicon for sexual terminology, readers are not offended or triggered by the words I have used to write about this topic. I welcome feedback if you have suggestions for improvement. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org