The Origin of the Speculum Is Just As Creepy As You Imagined

Illustration for article titled The Origin of the Speculum Is Just As Creepy As You Imagined

The speculum is that scary device that looks like a duck bill and is used to conduct pelvic exams on women. Perhaps not surprisingly, the guy who invented this medical instrument did it in the most horrible way possible.


Over at The Atlantic, Rose Eveleth has a story about the origins of the speculum, and its continued popularity today. She explains:

The speculum most women experience today is largely credited to a man named James Marion Sims, often heralded as the father of American gynecology. He was a controversial figure even in his day, and should probably remain one now.

Sims's early gynecological experiments were done on slave women who, in many cases, he purchased and kept as property in the back of his private hospital. Along with this violent legacy, Sims left behind a few medical advances and inventions—one of them being the vaginal speculum. While the design has been refined, the speculum women see today isn't all that different from the one Sims used on his captive patients.

One might expect our modern spirit of innovation and disruption to turn its eye on the speculum. Surely something invented so long ago, under such dubious circumstances, could use an update. And many have tried. In the past 10 years, new designs for the speculum have continuously cropped up, only to fade away again. But while medical manufacturers continue to improve the design in little ways, there has been no real contender to displace the duck-billed model.

As someone who has had to deal with speculum exams my whole life, this scenario is all too believable. But why haven't we improved on the design in the years since we abolished slavery?

Find out by reading the whole article over at The Atlantic.



Lawdy . . . from the rest of the article:

"Diseases of the vulva, vagina, and cervix might be better understood and more effectively treated if physicians could see these organs, but this greater understanding came at what many physicians considered to be too high a price," Margarete Sandelowski, a women's health expert, wrote in a paper on the history of the speculum. Doctors thought that opening up a woman's body might corrupt those women and turn them into prostitutes or sex-crazed maniacs.

This just goes to prove that history needed more ladydocs. I can confidently and vehemently affirm that there is *nothing* sexytimes about speculae.