Maria Rovito is a PhD candidate at Penn State University, with a focus on disability studies, medical humanities, and women and gender studies. Here she discusses her endometriosis research study of Joe V. Meigs’ theory of endometriosis as a “career woman’s disease” and how that contributes to medical racism in its treatment and diagnosis.

The Impact of Joe V. Meigs Theory on Endometrial Care

Joe V. Meigs was an instructor of surgery and a gynecology professor at Harvard University during the early-20th century. He studied all kinds of gynecological illnesses. However, he was most intrigued by endometriosis, calling it an “enigma” throughout his work.  

Meigs believed that women who chose school or careers rather than starting a family were most at risk. He often suggested young women with pelvic pain marry and have children as soon as possible to stop the endometriosis from growing.  
 
Meigs repeated these claims throughout popular newspapers and magazines during the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, the first-time endometriosis appeared in pop culture was in a 1948 article interviewing Meigs for The New York Times. Soon, his ideas spread to medical textbooks and other publications, and endometriosis was linked to the phrase “career woman’s disease.”  

We know now that Meigs’ ideas were hilariously inaccurate. More and more research suggests that endometriosis is already formed by the time a baby is born. However, he had such a profound influence that many physicians took his ideas as truth. People with endometriosis are still being told that becoming pregnant will cure their pain.

Underfunded & Under-Researched

Trying to get funding for an endometriosis research study is a challenge. This means that there is less incentive for scientists to research it. According to the Center for Disease Control, even though it affects the same amount of people that diabetes does, diabetes receives about $1.1 billion in funding each year. Endometriosis only receives about $10 million. 
 
While there are many researchers who are studying endometriosis now, the time to diagnosis is still about 7- 11 years in the U.S. And Meigs’ ideas have certainly contributed to this. 
 
There is also a huge stigma surrounding menstrual disorders and menstruation in general in the U.S. People are shamed for discussing their periods and someone with undiagnosed endometriosis is less likely to seek help.

Read about reducing shame in How I Came to Love My Period.

Hinderances to Health Care

Medical students are given inaccurate information or none at all. For example, they are often taught that endometriosis is only painful during menstruation, or that a hysterectomy is a cure. These are both false.  

Because of the stigmas, lack of research and misinformation, doctors are less likely to recognize it in their patients. Teenagers who have severe period pain are often told their pain is normal or they’re just stressed out. 
 
Severe pain with your period is not normal, but there is also no way to diagnose endometriosis without surgery. To make matters worse. Laparoscopic surgery is often not covered by insurance. And there are so few specialists who are skilled enough to perform the procedure.

Chronic Pain Diseases & Mental Health

Being dismissed by doctors for years often causes low moods and anxiety. To be constantly criticized and judged when asking for help is a barrier to proper treatment. Doctors need to recognize that being in pain for years can be a drain on a person’s mental wellbeing. 
 
New research suggests a connection between endometriosis and depression and anxiety. Historically, however, doctors have questioned a person’s mental state when claiming endometriosis pain. They’d countering that it’s “all in their head” or label women with endometriosis as hysterical. To this day, antidepressants are often prescribed before being referred to a specialist for endometrial care.

Medical RacismAn Endometriosis Research Study

There is a racial bias in endometriosis study and treatment, and Meigs was a main component of this. Because he believed that educated, upper-class women who were childless developed endometriosis, he argued that lower-class women and women of color did not develop it as often. Because Meigs shared his research with popular newspapers and magazines, the public started equating endometriosis as a white woman’s disease.  
 
Soon med school students were taught that Black people are less likely to have endometriosis than white people. This is not true at all, however there are still racial gaps in current endometriosis research study and treatment. Endometriosis is still largely seen as a white woman’s disease.

Joe V. Meigs & the Eugenics Movement

Meigs was involved in the eugenics movement while writing about endometriosis. He saw it as a threat to the future of the white race. So, he dedicated much of his research to figuring out how to increase fertility in upper-class white women with the disease. Young women were encouraged to have children to stop their endometriosis pain—not only was he dismissing their pain, but he had external motivations.  
 
There is still a disparity in how people of color are treated by doctors for endometriosis, and the eugenics movement directly plays into that. Meigs is responsible for the many oversights in research and treatment today, especially health inequity and structural racism in medical schools.

Improving Endometriosis Treatment & Diagnosis

People need to become more accepting of endometriosis, and menstruation in general. We should start by teaching about menstruation in school—to both girls and boys—as well as any conditions that might affect it, including endometriosis, PCOS, and PMDD.  
 
We also need to be more accepting of these issues in the workplace. Menstrual Leave has been proposed and implemented in countries such as Spain, which will help those who are unable to work because of their periods. I often see both students and employees dismissed by their professors and employers because they don’t view endometriosis as a legitimate disability.  
 
We need to recognize that endometriosis is so much more than “just a bad period,” and that it can truly destroy a person’s life. We need to improve health equity, work against racism in medicine, and try to correct health disparities. This is why I’ve dedicated my research to it.

endometriosis awareness month

Maria Rovito is a PhD student at Penn State University, where she writes about the medical and social history of endometriosis. She also researches cultural representations of endometriosis in literature, art, and television.