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April 30, 2024
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Hysteria, Witchcraft, and Bikini Medicine — Dr. Elizabeth Comen Talks the Truth and Lies of Early Medicine

Dr. Elizabeth Comen has dedicated her medical career to saving the lives of women. She’s a Memorial Sloan Kettering oncologist, a medical historian, and the author of “All in Her Head — The Truth and Lies Early Medicine Taught Us About Women’s Bodies and Why it Matters Today.”

In this episode, Mary Alice and Dr. Aliabadi get a crash course in the problematic history that has shaped women’s healthcare, from the catch-all-diagnosis of hysteria that persisted into the early 20th century to the “bikini medicine” keeping women’s healthcare limited today. Dr. Comen dives into the shift from midwifery to gynecology, as women healers became scrutinized for witchcraft and men paved the way for modern obstetrics. She shares findings from her extensive research, including how the desire to control women’s sexuality historically led to outrageous medical beliefs like the idea that scoliosis was caused by masturbation. Dr. Comen and Dr. Aliabadi discuss gender bias as it pertains to female physicians and feminine nurturing in medicine, and the shame they observe in patients who aren’t comfortable sharing symptoms and apologize for natural bodily responses, even in their final moments.

Women’s issues in medicine are typically underfunded, under-researched, and often misdiagnosed. Dr. Comen discusses the root cause of societal stigmas and lingering ignorance that shape women’s healthcare and our relationships with our own bodies. Don’t miss this fascinating episode of SHE MD.

About the Guest

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Dr. Elizabeth Comen, M.D., is an award- winning, internationally sought-after clinician and physician-scientist. Dr. Comen is a Medical Oncologist specializing in breast cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. She earned her BA in the History of Science from Harvard College and her MD from Harvard Medical School, then completed her residency in Internal Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital and her fellowship in oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

In her book, ALL IN HER HEAD: The Truth and Lies Early Medicine Taught Us About Women's Bodies and Why It Matters Today, Dr. Elizabeth Comen shines a light on the female medicalized body and illuminates the myths and blind spots we’ve unwittingly inherited through generations. She takes readers back in time to meet the legendary—and sometimes infamous—doctors who shaped the field of medicine, as well as the patients they cared for (or in some cases, didn’t). Comen explores the sanitariums of 18th century Europe, the anatomy labs of Victorian New York City, and the makeshift hospitals of the Antebellum South. She connects the dots to show how a legacy of ignorance, indifference, oppression, and subjugation toward women’s medical issues commands women’s medical present.

  1. When it comes to your medical care, it’s NOT all in your head. You should not be shamed or dismissed for your medical concerns.
  2. Shame plays an important historical legacy in how we see our bodies. Consider the stories women have been told about our bodies and how we can write a new chapter moving forward.
  3. If you don’t like your doctor or don’t think you like you, you should find a new doctor. A trusting relationship is
  4. Communication is essential — Patients should get information delivered in a compassionate way. You may have access to certain labs and test results online. Talk to your doctor about how you want to receive essential medical information.
  5. Medicine can be complicated. Know who the key players are on your team and how you can advocate for yourself. Consider bringing someone with you to appointments to ask questions and keep track of everything. Know who the nurses, nurse practitioners, and administrators are on your team, not just your doctor. You deserve to be cared for.


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