Medical Modesty

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / January / February 2004
June 8th, 2007
In seventeenth-century China, no lady would have endured the indignity of a hospital johnny. It was improper for a physician to see her body, much less conduct a physical exam. So on a house call to a woman of rank, he would pull from his pocket a palm-size diagnostic doll.

“The lady would be lying in a four-poster bed behind curtains, and the doctor would hand the doll to the maid, who would hand it to the lady,” explains Sidney Brody, a retired professor of medicine who recently donated his collection of antique medical instruments to Brown. “She would point to the place where it hurt, and he would make his diagnosis based on that.”

The carvings were used in China from the 1600s until as late as the 1940s, estimates physician William M. Strait in a 1970 article on the tradition. Brody acquired his carving while he was stationed in Beijing as a U.S. Marine flight surgeon during World War II. In a display at the John Hay Library this fall, Brody’s delicate, hand-painted ivory figurine stood out among the cold, steel specula and spectacles. He estimates that his statuette is about 150 years old.

Diagnostic dolls were typically nude except for their tiny feet, which were covered with drapery or shoes. Foot-bound as toddlers, ladies never exposed these, their most erotic and private parts. Even in bed with her husband, a lady would cover her feet, reports Strait. For a stranger—even a doctor—to see them would bring disgrace.

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January / February 2004