Wandering womb

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Wandering womb was the belief that a displaced uterus was the cause of many medical pathologies in women. The belief originates in the medical texts of ancient Greece, although the belief persisted in European academic medicine for centuries.


The belief in the "wandering womb" was part of the teachings of Hippocrates. A description of the theory of a "wandering womb" is from Aretaeus, a physician from Cappadocia, who was a contemporary of Galen in the 2nd century. He wrote that the uterus could move out of place, and float within the body:

In the middle of the flanks of women lies the womb, a female viscus, closely resembling an animal; for it is moved of itself hither and thither in the flanks, also upwards in a direct line to below the cartilage of the thorax, and also obliquely to the right or to the left, either to the liver or the spleen, and it likewise is subject to prolapsus downwards, and in a word, it is altogether erratic. It delights also in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it has an aversion to fetid smells, and flees from them; and, on the whole, the womb is like an animal within an animal.[1]

The belief that the uterus could move freely, similar to an "animal within an animal", may have been part of ancient cultural beliefs in Greece,[2] but the earliest known written accounts of it are in the teachings of Hippocrates. The movement of the uterus was believed to cause pressure on nerves, arteries, and other organs, which in turn created symptoms of illness. This was believed to be the cause of a large number of pathologies, such as "choking, sleepiness, loss of speech, vertigo, knee problems, headaches, problems with the veins in the nose, heartburn, pulse irregularities, and death".[3]

Opposing views[edit]

Soranus of Ephesus (circa 98 to 138) was a rare exception among gynecology physicians in opposing the theory of the "wandering womb". Soranus wrote, "the uterus does not issue forth like a wild animal from the lair, delighted by fragrant odors and fleeing bad odors, rather it is drawn together because of stricture caused by inflammation". Galen also insisted that the uterus was stationary. Yet, despite the fact that Soranus was an influential writer on gynecology, and that Galen was the Greco-Roman medical writer with the greatest overall influence on Medieval and Renaissance medicine in Europe, the belief in the "wandering womb" continued for centuries.[4]


Further information: Hysteria

The concept of hysteria caused by "wandering womb" continued to be taught from one generation of medical researchers to the next in Europe up until the early modern era. Medical researchers developed a better understanding of anatomy after the invention of microscopes in the 17th century and cellular research in the 19th century. Sigmund Freud's theory of the free-floating unconscious, the "mind within the mind", was similar to the ancient belief in the "animal within the animal".[5] Both "wandering womb" and "hysteria" are unused in medical theories of today.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lefkowitz, Mary R.; Maureen B. Fant (2005). Women's Life in Greece And Rome: A Source Book in Translation. JHU Press. p. 248. ISBN 9780801883095. 
  2. ^ Gilman, Sander L. (1993). Hysteria Beyond Freud. University of California Press. p. 118. ISBN 9780520080645. 
  3. ^ Olsen, Kirsten (1994). Chronology of Women's History. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 22. ISBN 9780313288036. 
  4. ^ Dixon, Laurinda S. (1995). Perilous Chastity: Women and Illness in Pre-Enlightenment Art and Medicine. Cornell University Press. pp. 19–20. ISBN 9780801430268. 
  5. ^ Gilman, Sander L. (1993). Hysteria Beyond Freud. University of California Press. p. 118. ISBN 9780520080645.