CONTRIBUTE to Humor, Words and expressions about menstruation and Would you stop menstruating if you could?
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Read 10 years (1996-2006) of articles and Letters to Your MUM on this site.
Leer la versión en español de los siguientes temas: Anticoncepción y religión, Breve reseña - Olor - Religión y menstruación - Seguridad de productos para la menstruación.

Menotoxin: a short, incomplete introduction to the "poison" in the menstrual flow

Many of you have heard of the alleged ability of a European menstruating woman to spoil dough, ruin wine and wreak mild havoc because of her condition. Many of these beliefs originated hundreds or even thousands of years ago. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates believed that menstruation cured women of the malaise they often had before starting their periods and therefore thought that sick men might benefit from losing blood, thus justifying bloodletting (which he did not originate), the release of blood with its supposed pollutants. (Sources for this article are at the bottom of this page.)

As far as I know, the first scientific study of the ability of menstruating women to cause harm is that of Viennese Professor B. Schick, who reported in his article "Das Menstruationsgift" ("The Menstrual Poison") in the Viennese Weekly Clinical Writings (Wiener klinische Wochenshrift) for May 1920. He rocked the world of Viennese gynecology by recounting the following (my translation of the German source toward the bottom of this page):

Wilted Roses:

"On the afternoon of August 14, 1919, I received about ten long-stemmed roses that looked very fresh; they were dark red and had hardly begun to open. In order to keep them fresh, I gave them to a maid to put into water. I was not a little surprised to find the next morning that all the roses had wilted and dried up. . . . I presumed that this was not some sort of deception and asked the maid. . . . She replied that she knew yesterday that the flowers would die; she shouldn't have touched them, because she was menstruating. Every flower that she handles during this time dies."
(Read an American view of this at the bottom of the page.)

Prof. Schick started experimenting. He gave a menstruating woman three flowers; within minutes their heads were hanging and after 24 hours they were kaput. He compared the dough made by a group of test subjects; Frau M's dough - she was menstruating - was 22 percent lower than the ones from non-menstruating women and half the width.

Schick proposed that menstrual poison, menotoxin, was at work, and felt that folk beliefs supported his explanation. A dissertation in 1975, Gibt es ein Menotoxin? (Is There a Menotoxin?) from E. Weber at the University of Göttingen described two of these beliefs:

"In Königsberg, Prussia, people believe that if a woman menstruates on the day of her engagement she will have bad luck for the rest of her life."

"In Swabia menstrual blood is considered poisonous: wives have often killed their husbands with it; no grass grows where it drops; and a man having intercourse with a menstruating woman will get gonorrhea."

The professor thought that the poison adhered to red blood cells and caused the unpleasant feelings many women feel before menstruation as well as the deleterious effects on their surroundings others have supposedly observed since time immemorial.

Other researchers experimented. A pediatrician in Prague, Dr. Frank, thought that menstrual poison was secreted through mother's milk and made babies sick. To test for the poison, he put those favorite test subjects, flowers, in flasks of milk from menstruating and non-menstruating women. The ones in the menstruating women's milk wilted much faster, especially if the women were in their first two days of their period.

Not every experimenter detected the poison. One named Sänger injected menstrual blood into mice, who cowered in a corner but did not die. What animals have put up with - those who survived, anyway - in the name of science!

Another, Bernhard Aschner, held the age-old belief that menstruation "purified" women, again cleaning them of poisonous substances, such as the tissue and secretions necessary for the support of the fertilized egg. He too thought that these substances caused women to feel bad before the blood started flowing, and that a lot of flowing blood was necessary for a woman's health. In women who bled little or not at all, he opened a vein or prescribed sweating therapy, both ridding the body of alleged poisons. (Several contributors to the Would you stop menstruating if you could? section believe the same thing. And, in a 1993 Quarterly Review of Biology article, Margie Profet, who later won a MacArthur Fellowship, maintained that menstruation functioned to rid the body of disease organisms brought in by men's sperm; this found little support in tests conducted in the scientific community. Menstruation is a time when the vagina is especially susceptible to infection because the discharge makes it less acid and more hospitable to disease bacteria.)

In the United States, in 1952, Harvard University's George and Olive Smith again proposed the existence of menotoxin (my English source, below, maintains he coined the term), possibly independently of the German efforts. They too injected animals with menstrual blood, but these died. In repeating the experiment, another Bernhard, this one Zondek of Jerusalem, mixed antibiotics with the blood. The poor animals did not die, thus showing that it was harmful bacteria that killed the Smiths' subjects, not a poison in the blood. But the Smiths held on to their beliefs for many years.

Apparently a Dr. Burger, in 1958, finally demonstrated that there was no such thing as menstrual poison.

(By the way, the list of German books on this site includes another dissertation for the doctor of medicine degree dealing with menstrual poison - German medical students must write a dissertation for the M.D., unlike Americans: Walter Senninger's 21-page Schwefelstoffwechsel und Menstruation. Ein Beitr. z. Frage d. Menstruationsgiftes [Sulfur metabolism and menstruation. A contribution to the question of menstruation poison.] for the University of Munich, in 1927. I'd love to get my hands on it! The University of Bochum apparently owns a copy.)

Genital odor, including menstrual odor, has a terrible reputation in America and many other places.

Brazilian gynecologist Dr. Nelson Soucasaux discusses menotoxin

My information comes from
Die unpäßliche Frau: Sozialgeschichte der Menstruation und Hygiene 1860 - 1985, by Sabine Hering and Gudrun Maierhof. Centaurus Verlagsgesellschaft, Pfaffenheim, Germany, 1991 and
Is Menstruation Obsolete? by Elsimar M. Coutinho, with Sheldon J. Segal. Oxford University Press, 1999. The latter book also proposes the greatest possible elimination of menstruation world wide because of the greater harm than good it does, which the ground-breaking anthropological work of the University of Michigan's Beverly Strassmann supports. Read some excerpts.
I find it interesting that in the menotoxin discussions not one person mentioned in the one book is found in the other. It's as if neither set of authors had heard of anyone in the field outside of their own country. Maybe that's true.

Dr. Howard Kelly, first professor of gynecology at Johns Hopkins medical school, wrote the following in his last (1928) edition of the text Gynecology, which adds to the list of names of people doing research on the subject mentioned above:
In 1920, Schick [read the account about him towards the top of this page] reported that the secretions of a women during menstruation contain some substance unfavorable to plant life, apparently supplying a scientific basis for many ancient superstitions. His studies were confirmed by Macht who suggested that menotoxin is related to oxycholesterin. More recently Labhardt as well as Schubert and Stending discredit these notions.

© 2001 Harry Finley. It is illegal to reproduce or distribute any of the work on this Web site in any manner or medium without written permission of the author. Please report suspected violations to hfinley@mum.org