News | Published:

Physiology for Women*

Nature volume 5, pages 7374 | Download Citation



BY Physiology we should understand a knowledge of the functions of the human body, and of the laws which regulate and maintain its various actions. The physiology of plants and of the lower tribes of animals (Botany and Zoology) are described by two other Professors in the University, and there will be little enough time for me to condense and give an account of what is now known of the subject, even as I have limited it. Whatever useful information, however, can throw light on human physiology, derived from every collateral science, will be made use of to assist inquiry. After some preliminary lectures on the histology, chemistry, the physical and vital properties of the tissues, I shall more especially dwell on the two great functions of nutrition and innervation. The former involves an acquaintance wiih what constitutes a proper food for man — how it Lis prepared by mastication, insalivation, digestion, chymification, sanguification, and respiration, to form the blood; how out of this blood the tissues are formed; and how, after these have fulfilled their proper uses, they are separated from the body in the act of excretion. The latter comprehends a description of the functions of mind, including the mental acts, sensibility, sensation, volition, and the varied kinds of motion; of the functions of the nerves; of the special senses, such as smell, taste, touch, sight, hearing, and the muscular sense of voice and speech; and lastly, of sleep, dreams, somnambulism, catalepsy, trance, witchcraft, animal magnetism, &c. &c. Of the subjects included under these heads it is impossible to overrate the importance in reference to their relation to the health and happiness of man, his physical and moral welfare, his social relations, his national resources, and the prosperity of his race. I have long formed the opinion that physiology, besides being essential to the medical student, should be introduced as an elementary subject of education in all our schools—should be taught to all classes of society. It is an ascertained fact that 100,000 individuals perish annually in this country from causes which are easily preventible, and that a large amount of misery is caused by an ignorance of the laws of health. The clergy should especially study it—first, with a view of diminishing the difference in thought existing between literary and scientific men; and, secondly, because their influence on the people from the pulpit, and as parish ministers, is so important. All other professions and trades, however, might beneficially study physiology, especially newspaper editors and reporters, who diffuse a knowledge of useful things among the public; and architects, who have not yet learnt to build dwelling-houses and public halls properly ventilated. But women, in all classes and degrees of society, have more to do with the preservation and duration of human life even than men. It has been argued that, inasmuch as even the brutes know instinctively how to take care of their young, so must women be able to do the same. But the human infant is the most helpless of creatures, and nothing is more lamentable than to witness the anxieties and agony of the young mother as to how she should manage her first-born. In no system of education are women taught the structure and requirements of the offspring which will be committed to their charge; and certainly no error can be greater than to suppose that the senses and instincts are sufficient for teaching man as to his physical, vital, and intellectual wants. The enormous loss of life among infants has struck all who have paid attention to the subject, and there can be no question that this is mainly owing to neglect, want of proper food or clothing, of cleanliness, of fresh air, and other preventible causes. Dr. Lankester tells us, when ably writing on this topic, that, as coroner for Central Middlesex, he holds one hundred inquests annually on children found suffocated in bed by the side of their mothers, and he calculates that in this way 3,000 infants are destroyed in Great Britain annually alone, attributable in nine cases out of ten to the gross ignorance of those mothers of the laws which govern the life of the child.* But women are the wives and regulators of the domestic households. They also constitute the great mass of our domestic servants. On them depends the proper ventilation of the rooms, and especially the sleeping rooms, in which all mankind on an average spend one-third of their lives. Children are too often shut up all day in crowded nurseries, and when ill, are subjected to numerous absurd remedies before medical assistance is sent for. Their clothing is often useless or neglected, the dictation of fashion rather than of comfort and warmth being too frequently attended to. The cleanliness of the house also depends on women, and the removal of organic matter from furniture and linen, the decomposition of which is so productive of disease. Further, the proper choice and preparation of food is entrusted to them,—all these are physiological subjects, the ignorance of which is constantly leading to the greatest unhappiness, ill health, and death. Among the working classes it is too frequently the improvidence and ignorance of the women which lead to the intemperance and brutality of the men, from which originate half the vice and crime known to our police offices and courts of justice. Additional arguments for the study of physiology by women may be derived from the consideration of—(1) the effects of fashionable clothing—the tight lacing, naked shoulders, thin shoes, high-heeled boots—often subversive of health; (2) the great objects of marriage—the production of healthy offspring—and all the foresight, care, and provision required, but too often neglected through ignorance, to the danger both of mother and child; (3) the proper employment of women, which should be regulated with regard to their conformation and constitutions; and (4) nursing the sick, which is one of the most holy occupations of women, and which would be much more intelligently done if they possessed physiological knowledge. Doubtless those who regard this study as too difficult and technical for young men, will decry it also for women; yet it so happens that for them nothing is so truly interesting as this science. The examination-papers of school-girls of the Ewart Institution, Newton-Stewart, contain an amount of information in physiology perfectly astonishing. Seldom have medical students given better answers. And yet it has been argued that physiology was far too difficult and technical a subject to be studied even by the students in Arts of our University. Hence women in all ranks of society should have physiology taught to them. It should be an essential subject in their primary, secondary, and higher schools. So strong are my convictions on this subject, that I esteem it a special duty to lecture on physiology to women, and whenever I have done so, have found them most attentive and interested in the subject, possessing indeed a peculiar aptitude for the study, and an instinctive feeling, whether as servants or mistresses, wives or mothers, that that science contains for them, more than any other, the elements of real and useful knowledge.

About this article

Publication history





    By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

    Newsletter Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing