By Naomi Chainey in The Sydney Morning Herald.
As recently as 1921, MS (multiple sclerosis) was erroneously considered more common in men. By the late 1940s, a more even gender split was presumed. By 1960 it was posited that women might actually be slightly more prone to the condition. With the invention of the MRI – a more objective diagnostic method – we now understand MS to be three to four times more common in women.
So, back when physicians were making their diagnoses based on symptoms rather than scans, why was MS being missed in women? The answer, perhaps predictably, is that when men and women presented to clinicians with similar symptoms, men were likely to be diagnosed with an organic illness, while women were more vulnerable to a misdiagnosis of hysteria.
Popular late 19th and early 20th century treatments for MS involved antibiotics, syphilis medication or blood coagulants, while hysteria was treated with vibrators (yes, vibrators), hypnosis, or, if you were very unlucky, an insane asylum, so regardless of diagnosis, no one was receiving effective medical care. The gendered assumptions would have had a social impact, however, and indicate that men were historically considered more reliable as witnesses to the functioning of their own bodies than women.
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