Treatments for Menstrual Cramps throughout History

The following blog post was written by Shaelagh Cull, Summer 2015 Public Programs Assistant .


“My pen cannot express the anguish and pain suffered by some women…”:[1]

Treatments for Menstrual Cramps throughout History

Dysmenorrhea can be extremely painful and can sometimes be accompanied by headache, bloating, diarrhea, constipation or backache. Source:

For many women, each month until menopause will bring with it a new menstrual cycle. Anywhere between twenty to ninety percent of women will experience painful cramping, medically known as dysmenorrhea.[2] At its most basic level, menstrual cramps are the body’s way of getting rid of the nutrient-rich lining of the uterus. The body replaces this lining monthly in preparation for a potential pregnancy. The pain associated with this process can become so severe that it can lead to dizziness or fainting, and is associated with other uncomfortable symptoms such as headache, bloating, diarrhea, constipation or backache.[3] While in the throes of menstrual pain, women today often turn to over-the-counter painkillers, such as Advil, Midol or Tylenol to treat the discomfort, or to heat, in the form of electric heating-pads or hot water bottles to ease abdominal cramping. Even with such easily accessible and effective treatments, menstrual cramps can still take their toll – research has shown that dysmenorrhea is responsible for the majority of short-term school absences among adolescent girls, and some studies have suggested similar findings for adults in the workplace, although this has been difficult to properly test.[4] If menstrual cramps continue to significantly affect women today, even with accessibility to modern painkillers, how did the women of the past attempt to treat the pain associated with their monthly menstrual cycles? Continue reading

Laudanum: Freedom from Pain for the Price of Addiction

The following blog post was written by Lucy Gall, Summer 2015 Public Programs Assistant .

On Canada Day, the Museum of Health Care unveiled a new exhibit entitled “A Stubborn Illness” about the health of Sir John A. Macdonald and his family. When I first toured the gallery I was struck by the intriguing medicine prescribed to Sir John A. Macdonald’s first wife, Isabella Clark. Visitors seemed to share my sentiment and several have inquired why laudanum is no longer a popular treatment. Further investigation of laudanum and Isabella’s relationship with it reveals that though the drug provided pain relief, its side effects and risks far outweighed its benefits.

In 1843 Isabella Clark left Scotland to join her cousin Sir John A. Macdonald in Kingston, Ontario.  Continue reading

Touched by the Lord’s hand: The history of Multiple Sclerosis

the following blog post was written by Museum of Health Care Curator Maxime Chouinard 

Many Canadians will have to deal with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in their lifetime. According to medical researchers, it appears that this illness becomes more and more common as one moves away from the Equator. MS could be directly related to the amount of Vitamin D that we absorb; the less we get, the more likely we are to contract this inflammatory disease.[1] Others have theorized that a certain “Viking gene” might also be responsible and would explain why northern countries are affected more.[2]

Although the signs of MS have been observed for more than 175 years, it is still quite misunderstood. Some patients do recover, but in most cases the condition is still fatal. How did we first learn of the existence of MS, and how much have we learned in all these years about this disease and its treatment? Continue reading

Voluntary Veil: The Canadian Voluntary Aid Detachment in the First World War

the following blog post was written by Museum of Health Care Curator Maxime Chouinard

Today, the Museum of Health Care is unveiling its newest onsite exhibition titled Trench Menders: Health Care in the First World War. This exhibition centers on the work of the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the Great War and its accomplishments in the fields of medicine, dentistry, nursing and many others. Although the CAMC was essential to the wellbeing of the soldiers, it is easy to forget that other groups also participated in the effort and often received very little attention after the War. One of those is the Voluntary Aid Detachment or VAD.

CWM_MCG 19920143-009

Posters such as these would have decorated St.John Ambulance offices during World War 1 and convinced more than 2000 women to join the VAD. CWM 19920143-009, George Metcalf Archival Collection © Canadian War Museum / Musée canadien de la guerre

Before the mid 19th century, women had a discreet but ever-present role on the battlefield, mostly as camp followers. When women such as Florence Nightingale started to demonstrate the value of military nurses, armies began to slowly, but surely assign them to their medical services.

The Voluntary Aid Detachment arrived at a pivotal time in history. The VAD was organized mainly through the Red Cross and especially in Canada through the Order of St. John. The Detachment offered an opportunity for women to participate more actively in the war effort. While working class women would find employment in the war industries, in the field, or keeping the family business running while the men were away at war, voluntary work was not an option.  Upper class women would often choose to help  raise funds or fill white collar positions left vacant, However, that was often not enough for many of them who desired a more active role. Continue reading

Christmas Seals and Advertising for Health

the following blog post was written by 2014-2015 collections volunteer Emily Welsh

It’s that time of year again. A time for gathering with friends and family, holiday cheer and generosity. In the world of health care one of the most recognizable forms of Christmas charity comes in the form of the Christmas Seals. The idea originated in Copenhagen in 1903.

The first Christmas seal was produced in Denmark 1904. It featured an image of Denmark’s Queen. Source: Wikipedia Public Domain

The first Christmas seal was produced in Denmark 1904. It featured an image of Denmark’s Queen. Source: Wikipedia Public Domain

As the story goes, a postman by the name of Einar Holboell was working late one December night sorting the piles of Christmas mail. He happened to look out the window as two homeless children passed by and when he returned to his work Holboell had an idea; what if people could buy extra stamps for their mail and the proceeds would go to charity? The following Christmas, after designing the seals, Holboell and his coworkers sold four million stickers to the Danes.

The question became which children to aid. They decided to donate the proceeds to aid the countless children affected by tuberculosis, beginning the construction of two hospitals which would treat the children.[1] Continue reading

A Hair-Razing History of the Beard: Facial Hair and Men’s Health from the Crimean War to the First World War

*the following guest blog was written by Brendan Cull, 2014 Curatorial Volunteer

The period following the Crimean War and until the end of the First World War marks an interesting time for men’s fashion and health. During the Victorian period, beards and other facial hair styles enjoyed resurgence in popularity which had not been seen since the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.[1] While the facial hair trend waned by the end of the nineteenth century,[2] enthusiasm for debating the cleanliness and overall health of bearded and non-bearded men remained strong. With increased attention to the face, and more specifically the hair on it, doctors, nurses, soldiers and the general public engaged in spirited discussions of men’s health.

The popularity of the beard in Victorian Great Britain has often been attributed to the Crimean War (1853-1856). This war consisted of a number of armed conflicts between Russia and Turkey, as well as Turkey’s allies (England, France and Sardinia). While stationed in the Crimean Peninsula, many men in the British Army began to grow beards. Partly a fashion statement, long “Crimean beards” (pictured below) also had the practical advantage of keeping soldiers warm in the local winter environment.[3] When the war ended and British troops returned home to England, the public adopted the look with great enthusiasm. Although Crimean War veterans can be credited with the resulting popularization of the bearded masculine look, interest in growing beards was already starting to gain momentum within academic and political circles back home.[4] However, with the return of successful soldiers sporting thick beards, the style became a common fixture of the modern, masculine Victorian man for approximately the next fifty years. Continue reading

Mandrakes, from Mythology to Museum Collectable

The following blog post was written by 2014 Collections Technician Katrin MacPhee*

“… Not poppy, nor mandragora,

Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,

Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep

Which thou owedst yesterday.”

Shakespeare: Othello III.iii [1]

Earmuff-clad, Harry Potter and his friends wrench unyielding mandrake plants from their cozy earthen beds to replant them in pots large enough to accommodate their growing bodies. The mandrakes are described as having anthropomorphic forms and features. While the wails of the adult mandrakes are fatal, Professor Sprout assures her herbology students that the cries of the young plants would only “knock them out for a few hours.” [2] As the narrative of the Chamber of Secrets unfolds, the mandrake’s power to revive victims of petrification proves crucial to the plot.

As Harry Potter was (as you may have guessed) a much-adored part of my childhood (and, ahem, adulthood) I was familiar with J.K. Rowling’s vision of mandrakes. Imagine my delight when I learned, while sifting through pharmaceutical artefacts within the Museum’s collection, that the Museum of Health Care possesses eight mandrake medication containers or trading cards.

Flint's Mandrake Pills trade card, N. Ballin ,1883, Collection of the Museum of Health Care,   996001419

Flint’s Mandrake Pills trade card, N. Ballin ,1883, Collection of the Museum of Health Care, 996001419

What, I thought to myself, were such whimsical fancies doing outside the herbology classroom and in my very own hands? Fans of Rowling’s series are likely aware that many characters, names, and objects within Harry’s world were inspired by a variety of mythological traditions. As I take you on a whirlwind tour of various perceptions of the mandrake, you will discover how firmly rooted Rowling’s mandrakes are within long histories of medical, literary and folklore practices. Continue reading


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