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The making of menopausal myths

April 20, 2011
By Mary Lou Williams, M. Ed.

The Women’s Health Initiative, a landmark study reported in the July 17, 2002, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that hormone replacement therapy, a combination of estrogen and progestin, causes an increase in breast cancer, an increase in heart attacks, an increase in strokes, and an increase of blood clots in the legs and lungs. A spin-off study of the WHI found that HRT doubles the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia in women 65 and older. This result does not mean that HRT has no effect on the mental function of younger women. The study did not study this effect in younger women; therefore, no conclusion could be drawn.

The study concluded that the harmful effects of HRT outweighed the benefits: a decrease in hip fractures and colorectal cancers. How could a drug that causes more harm than good have become a medical mainstay for almost half a century?

Robert A. Wilson and Feminine Forever

To understand the answer to this question, we need to go back to 1966 and the publication of a book called Feminine Forever by gynecologist, Robert A. Wilson, MD. According to Wilson, menopause was an abrupt descent into old age, “a living decay” and a “tragedy that often destroys a woman’s character as well as her health.” The menopausal woman was “the equivalent of a eunuch,” “de-sexed,” “shriveled,” “a dull-minded but sharp tongued caricature of her former self,” “one of the saddest of human spectacles.”

A woman could be saved from this “vapid cow-like “ fate by estrogen, the fountain of youth in a pill that would not only prevent aging but practically all the chronic diseases of the western world as well: “Estrogen, the hormone of feminine attraction and well being…keeps a woman sexually attractive and potent, it preserves the strength of her bones, the glow of her skin, the gloss of her hair. It prevents the development of high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes. It tends to prevent diabetes and diseases of the urinary bladder…”

Forever Feminine as an overnight success, selling over 100,000 copies in the first year. Women’s magazines disseminated Wilson’s ideas and widely promoted his concepts. A well-written excerpt in Look magazine was read by millions and created quite a buzz. Wilson flew around the country promoting his book, telling women and doctors alike that estrogen could keep women young, healthy and attractive. He set up the Wilson Research Foundation, which promoted the use of estrogen drugs.

However, his research was flawed and invalid. The FDA pronounced him “unacceptable as an investigator for drugs in the menopause” because he was disseminating information claiming hormones could prevent aging, a condition for which they had never been proven to be effective. In spite of this, sales of Premarin, an estrogen drug, doubled in the wake of Feminine Forever and by some estimates even tripled.

The greatest experiment ever performed on women

Dr. Wilson died in 1981, by his own hand. His wife died of breast cancer in 1988. Although most of his theories and promises have been proven completely wrong, his book lured tens of millions of women into taking estrogen in a quest for eternal youth. In the words of Ron Wilson, an animal-rights activist who is no fan of his father’s book, “Thanks to my late father, a drug made from animal waste is the most widely prescribed drug in the world today.” (This statement was made prior to July 17, 2002. It is no longer true today.)

A comprehensive history of female hormone therapy from the discovery of estrogen in 1923 to the Women’s Health Initiative of July 2002 can be found in the book, The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women - Exploding the Estrogen Myth, by Barbara Seaman. The experiment the title refers to is not the Women’s Health Initiative of 2002 but the unofficial trial that began over half a century ago with the marketing, prescribing and sale of female hormones. Dr. Robert Wilson’s book was a significant part of that experiment.

Mary Lou Williams, M. Ed., is a lecturer and writer in the field of nutrition. She welcomes inquiries. She can be reached at 267-6480.



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