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WHY DO WOMEN AND SOME OTHER PRIMATES MENSTRUATE? C. A. FINN* The phenomenon of menstruation must have puzzled man since time immemorial. At what period the relationship of menstruation to childbearing was first appreciated is not known, although some association must have been suspected in mediaeval times. Isodore of Seville [1], in the seventh century, wrote, "After many menstrual days, however, the semen is no longer germinable because there is no menstrual blood by which the ejaculate can be irrigated. Thus semen does not adhere to the female parts; lacking this power to adhere it is lost. Likewise thick semen also lacks the power of growth, being unable to mix with the female blood because of its own excessive thickness. This is why men or women become sterile: from excessive thickness of semen or blood, or from excessive thinness" [2]. Certainly for hundreds of years myths and superstitions have surrounded the process ofmenstruation, associated predominantly with the idea of uncleanliness. In the Jewish faith, for instance, women are not permitted to carry out any religious functions during the menses, and the menstruating matrons of Rome were not allowed to enter the temples . Intercourse during menstruation was considered to be a peccatum (sin), and women who had primary amenorrhoea were not supposed to marry and, if they did, could be divorced [3]. The uniqueness of menstruation to woman (and a few other primates) may not have been very apparent to early man. The animal most closely associated with him—and probably the only one with a reasonable possibility of having its vaginal discharges noticed—would have been the bitch, and this animal does periodically show a sanguinous discharge from the vagina. In any case, in pre-Darwinian times man was not aware ?Department of Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology, University of Liverpool, Veterinary Field Station, Leahurst, Neston, South Wirral, L64 7TE, United Kingdom.© 1987 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 003 1-5982/87/3004-0536/$01 .00 566 I C. A. Finn ¦ Why Do Women Menstruate? of his probable descent from other animals, so the anomaly would not have appeared so odd. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Isodore of Seville [1] stated that "women are the only menstrual animal." The early medical practitioners assumed that the periodic discharge of blood was an important physiological function in itself. Because of its occasionally putrescent appearance and smell and the attendant pain, it had been assumed since Hippocrates that the period was a form of detoxication of the blood poisoning that women encountered [3]. Isodore said that "the menstrual flow is woman's superfluous blood," and Trotula ofSalerno in the eleventh century [4], quoting no less an authority than Galen, gave very precise details for the treatment ofwomen who failed to menstruate: "If the menses are lacking and the woman is thin, the vein under the inner arch ofher foot, the internal saphenous, should be lanced. On the first day from one foot, on the following day from the other foot—the blood to be drawn as the case demands." However, Isodore of Seville [1] appreciated that the menstrual flow is no ordinary blood: "On contact with this gore, crops do not generate, wine goes sour, trees lose their fruit, iron is corrupted by rust, copper is blackened. Should dogs eat any of it they go mad. Even bituminous glue which is dissolved neither by rain nor by (strong) water, polluted by this gore, falls apart by itself." It is hardly surprising that menstruating women were kept out of temples and not allowed to perform religious functions. In the enlightened Victorian times, when zoologists became interested in reproductive biology, the similarity of the oestrous cycle of other animals to the menstrual cycle of nonprimates was stressed. In 1842 Pouchet [5] suggested that menstruation in women corresponds to the period of sexual excitement in other female mammals. Many of the great biologists of the day, including Marshall [6] and Heape [7], thought that the flow of blood at menstruation was equivalent to the prooestrous flow in dogs. Heape [7] suggested that all animals had a discharge at prooestrus but that the degree of tinting by blood varied such that in some animals the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 566-574
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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