The big idea: why we need to rewrite the history of female bodies

Centuries of prejudice have led to bad science, physical suffering and missed potential

In the 17th century, ovaries got their modern name, which essentially means “place for eggs”. Before that, they were known only as female testicles, thought to be vestigial versions of male gonads that may or may not produce “female sperm”. A young Dutch anatomist, Regnier de Graaf, was the first to show that they actually made eggs, by dissecting just-mated rabbits. “Nature had her mind on the job when generating the female as well as when generating the male,” he wrote.

But in the 19th century, the trend of surgeons removing healthy ovaries to treat “ailments” such as hysteria made it clear that they were doing far more than acting as egg baskets. These unassuming organs were, in fact, supporting women’s wellbeing in a much more fundamental way. Eventually, the discovery of estrogen helped scientists piece together the fact that the ovaries were powerhouses of female health, nodes in a complex feedback mechanism between brain and body. They orchestrated the production of hormones that supported nearly every physical system, from bones to brain development.

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