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Writing Hormonal Histories of Empire: Faculty book talk with Professor Sarah Duff

In the years between 2021 and 2024, the inaugural Public Humanistic Inquiry Lab (PHIL) aims to critically explore the relationship between medicine and race and stimulate campus-wide interests in the medical humanities. PHIL comprises a diverse group of faculty members across the College and addresses topics related to health inequities.

Assistant Professor of History Sarah E. Duff is one of the members of PHIL. Her research focuses on the intersections of age, race, and gender in the British Empire and modern South Africa. 

On Nov. 2, Duff gave an online talk about her current research on the history of menopause and how it was affected by British imperialism. The talk was a part of the Medical Humanities Colloquium and was open to faculty members as well as the general public.

At the beginning of the presentation, Duff mentioned why she was interested in the topic of menopause. She explained that because the concept of “womanhood” was closely connected to one’s reproductive ability in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, exploring how women and society interpreted the changing of hormones in their bodies helps to interrogate how the social structure was shaped by gender differences.

Connecting with the article “Culture and Symptom Reporting at Menopause” by Melissa L. Melby, Margaret Lock, and Patricia Kaufert, Duff pointed out that menopause as a “biocultural phenomenon” has no “universal entity” and that “there is no universal menopausal experience waiting to be exposed through systematic inquiry.”

“The term menopause originated in a cultural context. Both its definition and popularization were driven by human forces,” she added. 

Duff then examined the progressive understanding of menopause. Published in 1868, the Prevention of Disease in Tropical Climates by EJ Tilt, an English physician, gynecologist, and medical writer, connected menopause with temperature in different regions: “I believe that life is longest in those women in whom puberty is retarded, as it is proved to be the longest in cold countries where the average date of first menstruation is delayed beyond the average in temperate climates.”

Duff pointed out that linking temperature to women’s fertility and longevity was not only a misunderstanding in science but a problematic idea that contributed to scientific racism.

Claiming that European women were the ones with stronger reproductive abilities compared to others living in tropical climates, Tilt suggested that race had a biological inheritance, which justified colonialism in the nineteenth century.

Duff focused on the family of Maria Murray to study how middle-class women understood fertility, miscarriage, and menopause under British colonialism.

After her presentation, Duff said that she is “at the beginning of the project.” She said that she may include more archival sources as her research progresses. Currently studying in the United Kingdom, Duff said that she hoped to gain insights from this experience and improve her teaching strategy. 


~ Kristen Shen`24

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