Understanding Frida Kahlo’s fertility problems

Asherman's syndrome was first described in 1894. Image: Shutterstock

The famous Mexican painter studied medicine in her youth and used that knowledge to paint the different factors that might have affected her ability to procreate.

When Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was six years of age, she contracted poliomyelitis. The disease took a toll on her wellbeing and made her aware of how fragile her body was. Years later, she enrolled in premedical studies at the National Preparatory School, in Mexico City, but a bus accident changed her life: a handrail pierced her body. Kahlo was bedridden for months, and had to endure more than 30 surgeries, which help her regain movement — however, Frida spent the rest of her life in pain.

It was during those years that Kahlo started to paint. Most of her oeuvre can be regarded as part of her clinical history, as it deals with her miscarriages and chronic-pain. For example, Broken Column, which was painted in 1944, deals with her spinal surgery and the way she felt after the procedure.

“As I evaluated the various images of anatomy and biology painted by Kahlo, I came to understand that she was using her paintings to talk about her infertility,” says Dr Fernando Antelo, from the Department of Pathology, Harbour-UCLA Medical Centre. “She would paint these structures with great detail — a reflection of the fact that she avidly studied medical books that she had access to. As I thought about this, I recognised that she was thinking and painting the different factors that may have been affecting her ability to have children. She was looking for an answer to the question “˜Why can’t I have children’?”

Kahlo had several miscarriages and at least three therapeutic abortions. The flying bed, which was painted during Kahlo’s visit to the US, deals with the miscarriage she suffered in Detroit. Antelo suggests that this painting “illustrated the fragility of her body and calls attention to the pelvic bones and uterus”.

The Flying Bed. Image: Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museum Trust

After analysing Kahlo’s clinical history and delving into her artwork, Antelo found that Kahlo’s infertility was due to Asherman’s syndrome (intrauterine scarring). “I see the accident as the initial event of injury to her uterus. The traumatic injury initiated the scarring to the inner uterus.” The miscarriages also contributed to the disease: the events required the evacuation of the inner uterus to remove retained tissue and the medical instruments for curettage might have scarred the inner uterus.

Knowing the cause of the disease could have helped Kahlo ease her demons, but “given the limited medical technology of her time, it is unlikely that Kahlo could have been treated successfully,” Antelo explains. “If she had extensive scar tissue, treatment with modern methods may have made it possible for her to have a baby; however, the pregnancy would likely have complications.”

Antelo presented the results at the annual meeting of the American Association of Anatomists in San Diego. He hopes his research will bring more awareness to infertility and its causes. “The connection to Kahlo will likely attract more attention to this topic, and encourage the public to better understand their reproductive health.”

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