New light cast on female pelvises in University collections

4 March 2022

Photo of a building by the Fyris river.

Department of Anatomy in the Munken district, around 1880.

Many of the University’s museums currently hold preserved specimens of embryos, fetuses, newborns, and women’s pelvises. During the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, these formed part of embryological and obstetric collections at the Faculty of Medicine. Among other things, they were used as a teaching and research resource in maternity care. This is shown in a new doctoral dissertation on the history of science and ideas.

In her compilation thesis Bodies in Transformation: Obstetrical and Embryological Collections at Uppsala University circa 1830–1930, Helena Franzén explores the origins, uses and meanings of these collections. In four research papers and an introductory chapter, we meet the midwives, naturalists, patients, physicians, embryologists and schoolteachers who handled and interpreted the bodies as they were transformed into collection artefacts based on special interests and claims. The study demonstrates that the bodies were ambivalent and multifaceted entities.

“The collections were, for example, used as a resource to teach doctors to deal with complicated births. Contracted pelvises, whether due to disease or heavy workloads, placed women in an acute situation when the birth canal was too narrow for the baby to pass through. Doctors specialising in obstetrics felt that prospective doctors needed to learn how to diagnose a contracted pelvis in living patients by studying pelvises obtained during autopsies. In this way, they could learn to assess the degree of contraction in a patient’s pelvis so that they could then decide how best to resolve the situation,” says Helena Franzén, who recently defended her doctoral dissertation.

Caesarean sections a danger to women

Helena Franzén recently defended her doctoral
dissertation. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

One way to solve this problem during the first half of nineteenth century was to remove the baby in pieces through the birth canal. With the arrival of general anaesthesia around 1850, caesarean section became an option. While this procedure was extremely dangerous to the woman, it did at least give the child a chance of survival. This presented a dilemma: whose life should be saved?

The collections were also used as a research resource to provide knowledge about foetal malformations, as well as to teach health education in schools.

“Although the existence of human remains collections in Sweden has attracted the media’s attention from time to time over recent decades, we still know relatively little about the various meanings ascribed to them in the past. My research contributes a certain level of complexity to their history,” says Helena Franzén.