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Speculation, or, Fact and Fantasy

Posted By: Louise Foxcroft on January 23rd, 2014

Only a handsome and considerate young doctor of Scots extraction would press a warmed speculum against your raised inner thigh and enquire as to whether it is at a comfortable temperature for you. A woman is unprepared for this on the NHS and can be plunged into a trance involving feelings of acute admiration and longing , despite the gracelessness of the stirrups.

Perhaps it is true then, that in Victorian London ‘crowds of women rushed to a gentleman’s door, begging to have the speculum used’. And their abandoned eagerness might have been quite enough to ‘excite the suspicion and disgust of the public’ and fuel the ‘anti-speculum crusade’ of the mid-nineteenth century. Many doctors believed the instrument was a real threat to the peace and happiness of the family circle as the women all succumbed to this ‘new and lamentable form of hysteria’. It was thought so potentially corrupting, that a woman’s mind, particularly if she was unmarried, could be irretrievably poisoned by the experience. She was certainly no longer ‘the same person in delicacy and purity that she was before’. Moodiness, perversion and introspection would overcome her and she might even be so dreadfully affected that she would begin to speak unintelligibly, stuttering in broken sentences.

Women, everybody knew, were often of a highly nervous temperament and it followed that ‘exciting modes of treatment must be avoided’ lest the attentions of a speculum-wielding physician should become preferable to those of her lawful conjugal partner. The [obviously] male doctors wondered aloud ‘what father would allow his virgin daughter to be subjected to this pollution?’ They pondered ‘the dulling of the edge of the virgin modesty, the degradation of pure minds, of the daughters of England’. The aristocracy, the celebrities of their day, who, by common agreement, always took the lead in new health fads, was decidedly to blame. One only had to imagine the ‘complicated misery for a husband should his wife be set upon by a titled advocate of this uterine quackery’.

Pro-specula physicians believed that there was ‘no more harm in the use of the speculum than in the use of a spoon to ascertain the condition of the throat’. As long as it was used by men of the highest integrity and not ‘as some had employed it, as a mere plaything to serve their own ends’, there could be no argument against it.  Radically, they argued that purity was mental, and could not be destroyed by the speculum. But others accused them of ‘filthy and indecent application’, mainly, it has to be said, through fear of losing the custom and ‘the fast hold our noble science has of the middle and thoughtful classes.’

But the speculum had been around a long time already. The dioptra was one of the most spectacular Graeco-Roman medical instruments, superior in its precision and smooth phallic shape to the later European Renaissance priapiscus. Three bronze examples were dug from the ruins of Pompeii in1818. They consisted of three branches, two handles and a screw in the centre. A similar instrument was still being put to ‘barbarous’ use in early nineteenth-century Paris, under the sanitary laws. In a startling display of the double-standard the police used it on prostitutes, to separate the clean from the unclean and to prevent partly cured women being ‘turned out “well”, merely to infect fresh men’. Men we note, by implication, were not carriers of disease. By 1857 the Royal Medical & Chirurgical Society let it be known that it would have been better for the women of England had the speculum remained confined to the French syphilitic wards, no instrument being more subversive of female delicacy and more capable of ready abuse.

Twenty years later physicians and their patients were still getting hot under the collar, though the arguments now centred on the efficacy of the various kinds of specula available. The best of them, ‘that of four blades’, was deemed to be Madame Boivin’s [note the French connection]. Some were made of vulcanite with movable glass reflectors inside; others of opalescent glass, delicately and smoothly beveled at each end. De la Bastie’s toughened glass specula were said to be less liable to shatter as, unfortunately, many were known to ‘explode suddenly and without any apparent cause’. To give credit where credit is due, the medical profession understood that, ‘should this occur during their introduction, or while in situ it would be extremely awkward’.

Today a woman could be faced with her doctor brandishing a blackened and tarnished metal specula with a crooked chimney-like appendage, one that looks as though it has been unearthed from a box of odds and ends at a car boot sale. But, apparently, the worrying patina is achieved through laser treatments and the odd bit is a smoke extractor [yes, I’m being serious here]. Warming to the subject as any truly enthusiastic practitioner might, she might find the doctor pulling out a french-blue teflon coated model which, frankly, he should be allowed to use because at least it looks like he’s paid over the odds for it in a Conran shop. Finally, they might settle on the traditional silver, warmed to body temperature, selected from a shiny tray of the finest assorted instruments.

Some women of coarsened sensibility (speaking, perhaps, in broken sentences] claim to find the speculum rather erotic. But it is taxing to come up with a disorder that will enthrall your gynaecologist with its beauty and mystery, whilst remaining chronic. One would need an attractive illness, the sort that only afflicts the truly sensitive brain-worker. Consumption of the ovaries seems a bit extreme, Suffocation of the Mother just grimly dramatic. No, really they would do better to ponder the wistful Victorian exhortation that, ‘a noble nature should aspire after a better world, where there may be no distinction of sexes, and where no physician will be required to meddle with delicate organs’.