The forgotten doctor Mensinga died 100 years ago We have this gynecologist from Flensburg to thank for the diaphragm.
„It is the responsibility of every friend of humanity to forbid the conception of life whenever the existence, health or well-being of a mother appears to be threatened by (further) pregnancies“: Such was the medical credo of Wilhelm Peter Johann Mensinga (1836-1910).
As a general practitioner and obstetrician in northern Germany, Mensinga had to witness the burden of uncontrollable fertility borne by the sick and poor. The medical problems of his patients were attributed to 'malnutrition', 'unhealthy living conditions', and 'tuberculosis'. Ongoing pregnancies under such conditions were hardly bearable. For years Mensinga observed the physical and mental deterioration of women who were perpetually 'blessed' with children. Mensinga's own first love and wife, Elise Denker, died of tuberculosis during pregnancy. Her mother, grandmother and sister were cut down in their prime by the same illness.
The only contraceptive methods available were condoms (not as thin as today!), strict abstinence sustained over the course of many years, or self-control. Mensinga wondered what there is to life „outside of need, disease and weakness, if not love - the only pleasure left to poor people. The humanely thinking doctor must save people from its fatal consequences, and protect them.“
Contraception considered immoral
Mensinga concerned himself with the 'optional sterility' of women who were in need. To this end he developed the 'Pessarium occlusivum' out of rubber as of 1882, today known as the diaphragm. He worked together with a Flensburger instrument maker to improve the cap as well as the mechanism of the retainer ring, taking several incremental steps in search of an optimal way to fit the device to women's anatomy and make its application as comfortable as possible. Mensinga's Pessar is described in M. Rinard's book Unter vier Augen - die hohe Schule der Gattenliebe (1949) as follows: 'Presented is an elastic ring covered by a rubber membrane in the form of a hemisphere. It is inserted into the vagina so as to cover the mouth of the uterus or cervix. The intrusion of spermatozoa is thereby prevented. ...It is the cheapest method, but unacceptable from an aesthetic standpoint.'
Mensinga documented the experiences of women who used the device and its medical success in detail. He initially published his findings under the pseudonym Carl Hasse because of attacks by colleagues and professional bodies. The endorsement of contraception was considered 'immoral', as one of Mensinga's critics wrote: ' Every means that serves to undermine the natural goal of marital coitus is anti-nature...and therefore immoral. This position is clear, sure and universally recognized. That which is counter to nature is bad in itself and immoral and therefore forbidden under any circumstances.' Later he further expounds: 'Nothing can be hygenically correct that is ethically false'. Mensinga's discovery nonetheless was widely and speedily implemented, especially in Scandanavia, England, Holland and the United States. (See also our newsletter NL 2008/02, http://www.muvs.org/museum/newsletter/?id=50).
Mensinga's professional ethic was socially responsible and modern. He concerned himself with 'sickness that afflicted women, not women's sicknesses.' He arranged office hours for needy women and women without means twice a week for free check-ups. For other patients he developed a sliding scale payment plan based on what was affordable.
• Armin Geus in: Wilhelm Peter Johann Mensinga, Facultative Sterilität, 1987
• Christa Kolhorst: Dr. Wilhelm Mensinga, in: Biographien; Kleine Reihe der Gesellschaft für Flensburger Stadtgeschichte Heft 12, 1985
See Mensinga's diaphragm and other methods of contraception at the Museum of Contraception and Abortion, 1150 Wien, Mariahilfer Gürtel 37, Wednesday through Sunday 2PM-6PM, or any time at: www.muvs.org