In the 1920s there was a serious medical debate about an invisible substance called ‘menotoxin’. This was believed to exist in menstrual blood; it could blight flowers and prevent jam from setting, and bread from rising. The theory can be seen as a surprising throwback, in the age of germs (germs, rather than air or strange vapors, as the cause of disease, go back to the 1870s or so – although the theory was slow to catch on). Menotoxin seems to resurrect a very ancient idea about pollution arising in the female body, an idea found particularly in Pliny’s Natural History, a work written in the early Roman Empire but well known in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Here, the malign influence of a menstruating woman included her power to blight plants through her breath and through her touch, or to kill insects infecting crops merely by walking through a field (well, there’s a plus!).
Menotoxin theory was developed in the 1920s by Béla Schick (most famous for the ‘Schick test’ used to detect immunity to diphtheria toxin). But it didn’t end there. In 1974 there was a lively debate about menstrual pollution in the medical journal, The Lancet, while some orthodox Jewish websites continue to quote Schick’s findings with approval today.
The most famous menotoxin story concerns an experiment performed by Schick on August 14, 1919 (the story was still being repeated by him to his colleagues in 1954). One afternoon he received a bunch of ten dark red roses (isn’t the color wonderfully suggestive?), which a maid placed in a vase of water. She did not want to do this, but he insisted. When the flowers wilted and died by the next morning, he made inquiries and discovered the maid was menstruating. She said that this always happened to her, if she touched flowers during her period. Schick then carried out experiments with menstruating and non-menstruating servant girls, on flowers and also on making dough, concluding that something was excreted through the skin of those menstruating that had a toxic effect .
When this story was retold in The Lancet in 1974, correspondents wrote in to repeat traditional beliefs found all over Europe that menstruating women should not try to bake bread, preserve meat, sow seeds, reap fruit and so on – and, in a charming modern twist, shouldn’t have a perm, because it wouldn’t ‘take’. Another correspondent cited work in the 1930s and 1940s which apparently showed that the toxin derives from endometrial debris and that it is most lethal at the start of a period, but in the following issue of The Lancet this was attacked and it was argued that the rats in these experiments had died from bacterial infection; if they were given antibiotics before being injected with menstrual extracts, they suffered no harm. The correspondence ground to a halt when another doctor wrote in to argue that all these beliefs were superstition, arguing that ‘a 1924 photograph of a wilted daisy … and the unexplainable death of one Italian tree … are insufficient data on which to build a case in 1974’ (Ernster, Lancet, June 29, 1974, 1347). But a further burst of activity on menotoxin occurred in 1977, with a group of botanists and physiologists conducting experiments on menstrual blood, trying to find a substance that could affect not only plants but also women’s moods.
So what’s it all about? In earlier belief systems, in which it was thought that the blood was the material from which a fetus was made, the expulsion of this blood made it (in the words of the great anthropologist Mary Douglas) ‘matter out of place’, and thus something dangerous. Maybe there was simply a male fear of women’s hidden powers. But if so, all these taboos are doing is keeping women away from their normal domestic duties! Perhaps the belief that women should be forbidden from doing certain household tasks while menstruating would even have some benefits for the women themselves, giving them a few days off; across history, some cultures have imposed a time of ‘menstrual seclusion’ which could have had the same effect. But next time you read that bread may not be any good due to an ‘insufficient rising period’, maybe you’ll have a double-take moment!