Honoring the past: A history of women’s healthcare

In honor of National Women’s History Month, we wrote a two-part series about the history of women’s healthcare starting with female pioneers. We continue to celebrate with a look at events and innovations from the history of women’s healthcare. Let’s dive right in:

Birth control—how women took charge of their fertility

The history of birth control goes back a long way. By the early 20th century, reformers such as Margaret Sanger were pushing to make birth control more available — the sale and purchase of contraception was then illegal in the United States. Thanks to a growing birth control movement, the laws against contraception were gradually repealed (although it wasn’t until 1972 that the Supreme Court ruled that unmarried as well as married couples had the right to use contraception).

Abstinence, withdrawal, the rhythm method, and condoms were all common birth control options through the middle of the 20th century. Women also had access to diaphragms, but as these were expensive and awkward to obtain, many women turned to douching with disinfectant. In fact, Lysol disinfectant was the most popular female contraceptive from 1940 to 1960, even though it could be both dangerous and ineffective. In the 1950s, however, a new form of contraception would emerge which would revolutionize birth control: the pill.

Marketed under the name Enovid, the pill was an immediate hit when it became widely available in 1960. Women finally had an oral contraceptive that offered a safe, convenient, and reliable means of controlling their fertility. Other innovations would follow, such as the modern intrauterine device (IUD) in 1968 and, in 1990, the first implantable birth control (Norplant).

Today, after 100 years of progress, women have more birth control choices than ever before.

Cervical testing—a success story in women’s healthcare

In 1928, Georgios Papanikolaou, a Greek doctor working in the United States, made a startling discovery: he could identify cancer cells taken from a simple swab from a woman’s cervix. After publishing his research in 1943, his testing method—the Pap smear—became routine. The number of deaths from cervical cancer, which had been the leading cause of cancer deaths among women in 1900, was cut in half.

Today, the American Cancer Society recommends that all women between 21 and 29 should have a Pap test every three years. Beginning at age 30, women should get “co-tested” with both a Pap smear and an HPV test every five years, unless they’re in a higher risk category. Be sure to talk to your doctor about the testing that’s right for you.

And keep in mind—cervical cancer is highly treatable if caught early, so it makes sense to get tested.

Mammography—a powerful weapon in the fight against breast cancer

One of the major advances in women’s healthcare has been mammography. For women between 50 and 59, regular mammograms have been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer mortality by 14%. For women between the ages of 60 and 69, mammograms have lowered the risk by 33%. What’s the story behind this important diagnostic tool?

In 1913, the German doctor Albert Salomon used x-rays to identify cancerous and non-cancerous breast tissue. In 1949 Dr. Raul Leborgne of Uruguay devised the compression imaging technique, resulting in mammograms that were more accurate. By the mid-1960s, regular mammograms had become an essential part of women’s healthcare.

Today, x-ray film has largely been replaced by the digital mammogram because it uses less radiation while offering images of greater clarity. Another exciting development in mammography is 3D breast imaging. First approved by the FDA in 2011, 3D breast imaging, has been shown to find more invasive tumors than regular mammography.

Women’s Care is dedicated to improving the health of women through our healthcare services.  Learn how we work to achieve this goal, every day.