Cover image for Eve's rib : the new science of gender-specific medicine and how it can save you life
Eve's rib : the new science of gender-specific medicine and how it can save you life
Legato, Marianne J., 1935-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Harmony Books, [2002]

Physical Description:
xii, 258 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


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RC48.6 .L44 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Examines the various ways in which men's and women's bodies function differently and discusses the latest findings concerning specific organs and body systems, diseases, and treatment options from a gender perspective.

Author Notes

She is highly regarded by both the medical community and the general public, she is well known as one of the foremost authorities on gender differences. She is Professor of Clinical Medicine at Columbia University's College of Physicians & Surgeons. In February 1998, She founded the Partnership for Women's Health at Columbia, the groundbreaking alliance between the world of academic medicine and the corporate sector that has launched an ambitious and innovative educational campaign to define the differences between men and women in all areas of medicine and spread the new information to the professional and lay public alike. She is the winner of the coveted Research Career Development Award from the NIH, was cited as an "American Health Hero" by American Health for Women and has received numerous other awards including the American Medical Women's Association Woman of the Year in Science for 2002.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

From a professor of Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons and Woman of the Year in Science for 2000. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1 Eve's Question: "How Am I Different from Adam?" Unless they are focusing on the reproductive system, most doctors have a tendency to treat patients as though they were all the same sex: male. We consider patients' stories of their illnesses, examine their bodies, and interpret their laboratory tests as though gender were irrelevant. We even write prescriptions the same way, seldom considering patients' size or body composition, let alone sex, to determine how their bodies will process and use a particular drug. Even our understanding of what makes men and women different has been simplistic. (Many doctors ascribe it all to hormones, which is only partly correct.) In short, we've practiced medicine as though only a woman's breasts, uterus, and ovaries made her unique--and as though her heart, brain, and every other part of her body were identical to those of a man. It's not that the profession is overrun with poorly educated sexist practitioners. For the most part, rather, it's the way we have been educated, as though women were simply small men and data we have about the male body were the standard for both sexes. Most of the information doctors use in diagnosing and treating disease was gathered almost entirely from research on males. Remarkably, it's only recently that medical science has begun to grapple with the complex factors that define a person as male or female. The notion that women and men are essentially interchangeable isn't new. If you want to know what a culture holds to be most important and true, read its myths. Consider the story of Adam and Eve. As the crowning glory of the newly created world, God transforms some clay into the first human--a male, perfect in every way. In spite of the abundant richness of Paradise, however, Adam is lonely. Consider God, on the fifth day, taking pity on Adam. He puts him into a deep sleep, takes some tissue from his side, and fashions it into a woman. It's not only a biblical tale, it's also a medical fable, and an eerily prophetic one at that; it describes the first anesthesia, major surgery, and cloning of a new individual. More important, it tells us that Eve is literally derived from the stuff of Adam. Apart from their reproductive biology (which is admittedly unique for each, a fact with which the story's author never grapples), by definition Adam and Eve are identical: Eve is simply a smaller version of Adam. Still, she is different enough, apparently, to want to explore beyond the boundaries set for them both: she wants more information; she wants answers to questions that only she has formulated. She tempts her hapless mate into an ill-fated collaboration to acquire that knowledge (which, she is assured by Satan, will give her more power over the world around her)--and they are expelled from Paradise, condemned to a life full of effort, pain, and all the other assorted ills of the human condition. Although we can't know precisely what she wanted to ask, I've always imagined that one of her questions was this: "How am I different from Adam?" Eve may have brought about our exile from Eden, but perhaps she set the precedent for a minor medical revolution as well. The fact is, women have never really accepted the way doctors do business. All too commonly, when a woman would report to her doctor that a medicine made her palpitations worse instead of calming them, or that the pain from her heart attack had centered in her stomach rather than in her chest, he might simply tell her, "I've never heard of that" (or in an academic medical center, the more formal "We don't see that"). He might add to himself, Your reactions are obviously the result of some emotional issue. I can't take your complaints--or you--seriously. But thankfully, women have continued to ask their questions, and more and more they are insisting on answers. I met some of those women personally for the first time in 1992, when I left my laboratory to go on a nationwide book tour publicizing The Female Heart: The Truth About Women and Coronary Artery Disease, which I wrote with Carol Colman, a medical journalist. In ten days I spoke with hundreds of women about their experiences with coronary artery disease and the important ways these experiences differed from those of male patients. They told me a shocking number of stories about doctors' dismissing them as hysterical or "anxious" when they were asking for help with what turned out to be their first heart attack. Every time I gave a talk, I was met with a barrage of challenging questions for which I had no answers. Those ten days with these women, who were so hungry for information about their particular needs and their unique experiences, changed my life. At the end of that trip, I returned to my fully funded laboratory, locked the door, and gave the key to the scientist next door. My own research on coronary artery disease had shown that males and females experience that disease very differently; now I wondered, might the experience of other illnesses besides coronary artery disease differ between men and women? For that matter, what about differences in normal function? What if the biological sex of a person affected all the baseline measurements and standards that are accepted as "normal" for a healthy human? If it did, doctors would have to modify the way they've always thought about medicine. Our society might even have to construct entirely new strategies for preventing and curing disease, strategies that would emerge from a new awareness of the fundamental differences between men and women. SEX OR GENDER: WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT? What is it, precisely, that makes people either men or women? It's more than just hormones; it's a whole variety of things, and scientists are only just beginning to tease out the various ingredients of what biological sex is, and why males and females are different. But the complex interplay of genes and hormones that define biological maleness and femaleness is only half of the story. Males and females don't exist in a vacuum, and the way they develop and thrive--or fail to thrive--is a very real consequence of the societies and cultures in which they find themselves. Biological sex is overlaid by the roles, rules, and expectations society sets for its members. The combination of our biological sex with the impact of our environment on our health and behavior as men or women is called gender. Health is affected as much by environment as by genes and hormones, and it can be virtually impossible to determine whether biology or the way people live in their particular communities is responsible for their health. If Muslim women get malaria less often than Muslim men, is this because their immune system has some innate, sex-determined ability to fight off infection, or because they are required to wear clothing that conceals them from head to toe--and thus protects them from the bite of the mosquito carrying the malarial parasite? If African women get trachoma (a parasitic infection of the eyes that destroys vision) more frequently than African men, might it be because women spend much of their day at the river's edge, where the parasite lives, doing the family laundry and socializing with other women of the community? Teasing out these differences is one of the most complex and difficult challenges modern science faces. WHY HAVE RESEARCHERS STUDIED ONLY MEN? Like every other scientist trained in a top-rank medical center, I was taught, and had accepted, that the results of research done in males were applicable to both sexes. In anatomy laboratory, none of my instructors thought it important to point out whether our cadaver was male or female, except when we studied the reproductive organs. I didn't even entertain the idea that there might be significant differences between the two beyond the reproductive system. In a revealing monograph, the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine calculated that fully two-thirds of all diseases that affect both men and women have been studied exclusively in men. As a result, the models not only of how humans function normally but also of how they experience illness are essentially male. This assumption that men and women are so alike that it's not important to study women directly has dominated the way scientists do biomedical research and the way doctors practice medicine. Until very recently, everything about American health care, from research protocols to public health policies, reflected an intellectual mistake of astounding proportions, one that undoubtedly has affected the health and the lives of many women over the years. How in the world did this happen? The answer is complicated. It is not simply that men, who have traditionally dominated the worlds of academic medicine and scientific research, didn't care about women or thought they were unimportant. In fact, many of the dictates that restricted medical research to males were the result of an effort to protect women--particularly premenopausal women, whose reproductive abilities were of primary concern--from the risks of experimentation. (Scientists seldom if ever worried about a young man's reproductive potential: society still measures men principally by what they achieve, and women by their ability to conceive and bear children.) Researchers know that damage done to a fetus conceived during a clinical trial is not only an ethical issue; it can have potentially disastrous legal and economic implications if the child is born malformed. This philosophy of protectionism, by the way, was reinforced by the publicizing of Nazi atrocities during the Nuremberg trials, particularly the Doctors' Trial, which detailed the experiments done on concentration camp inmates (including children) in the name of medical science. That exploitation was not exclusively the work of fringe elements in the medical profession. One of the doctors, Paul Rostock, was the dean of the University of Berlin School of Medicine and chief of its department of surgery. Before the war, he had been an internationally respected member of the scientific research community, but now it was clear that even the "best" doctors were capable of exploiting the defenseless and the vulnerable in the name of medical progress. The Nazis were not unique: events in the United States reinforced the need for protection of vulnerable populations. In 1963 a physician-researcher injected cancer cells into elderly patients at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital in New York, in some cases without the consent of the physicians responsible for their care, and in other cases over the objections of doctors who pointed out that the patients were incapable of understanding what was going to happen to them. In 1932 in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, doctors withheld treatment for syphilis for years in four hundred black men, so that doctors could observe the natural course of the untreated illness, even though it was known that penicillin cured the disease. This famous example of the abuse of unprotected research subjects took place well before the Nuremberg trials. Concern for pregnant women (or young women who might become pregnant during the course of a drug trial) as subjects of medical research was fueled by two disasters. In the 1940s and 1950s, diethylstilbestrol (DES) was a popular drug used in pregnant women to prevent miscarriage (in spite of excellent evidence from well-done studies that it really had no ability to do so). In the 1970s it became apparent that many daughters born of those mothers were suffering from a rare form of vaginal cancer. A second drug, thalidomide, an antinausea treatment approved for use in 1958, produced devastating deformities in children born to women who used it while they were pregnant. These tragedies were a major reason that Congress in 1962 passed protectionist legislation (the Kefauver-Harris amendments and the National Research Act), which created a commission to develop guidelines for research in human subjects. Careful principles were developed and encoded in the policies and procedures of the National Institutes of Health. Another reason that only males were used in clinical studies was scarcity of research dollars. The cyclic variations in women's hormonal levels made it necessary to include many more of them in any protocol in order to achieve significant and reliable information. Researchers viewed men as a more homogeneous and stable population and were reluctant to spend extra time and money to study females. Today all of this is changing. Scientists know that in most cases the benefits of including women in clinical trials and research studies far outweigh the drawbacks; they know more about how to include women in studies without putting them at risk; and they are beginning to understand the importance of the information. They have arrived at this position via a couple of routes: tragedies like the thalidomide disaster; the increased influence and effectiveness of the feminist movement; and revolutionary improvements in medical technology. A societal event also greatly influenced the change. HOW WORLD WAR II CHANGED AMERICAN MEDICINE Exploring the factors that have shaped modern medical science and women's place in it could be a life's work, but the historical event that is widely accepted as playing a pivotal role in the process is World War II. The workforce changed during the war, and women took on all kinds of jobs that were once the exclusive province of men. These changes took place not only in factories and offices but in the medical profession as well. For the first time in history, women were admitted to surgical and orthopedic training programs and rose to high positions in teaching hospitals. When the war ended, they were often sent back to specialties like obstetrics and pediatrics, where "women belonged," but they never returned to prewar roles and attitudes. The war also profoundly increased the power of physicians. Before the war, physicians, armed with little more than laudanum, whiskey, and leeches, were unable to do more in the face of disease than cultivate the clinical skills that made the best of them superb diagnosticians, with a precise knowledge of how a disease, once contracted, played out its natural course. Their primary function was to predict a patient's fate: "On the tenth day of this pneumonia, the patient will either die, or her fever will break and she will recover." But under the pressures of the battlefield, physicians refined and used the first antibiotics to combat infection. They perfected the new discipline of plastic surgery (begun by John Converse, private practitioner and faculty of NYU College of Medicine, on the battlefields of France during World War I) and discovered that a virus was the cause of the hepatitis that they inadvertently spread when transfusing wounded soldiers with contaminated blood. They learned how to treat shock and to safely anesthetize patients during long surgical procedures. By the end of the war, Americans had developed an almost religious respect for the power of science. In 1944 scientists in the U.S. Public Health Service led Congress to pass the Public Health Service Act, which greatly expanded federal funding for medical research. Between 1955 and 1968, under the direction of James A. Shannon, the National Institutes of Health expanded significantly. By the 1960s, the United States led the world in medical and technological advances. Excerpted from Eve's Rib: The New Science of Gender-Specific Medicine and How It Can Save Your Life by Marianne J. Legato All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.