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Northwestern University

Why a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein was allowed to mutilate women for 30 years

Sarah Rodriguez's new book explores ‘The Love Surgeon’ and the limits of medical regulation

In the 1950s, an Ohio obstetrician/gynecologist nicknamed “The Love Surgeon” mutilated hundreds of women without their permission. What can the monstrous acts of Dr. James Burt tell us about medicine and self-regulation today? 

That’s the topic of a Northwestern medical historian’s new book, The Love Surgeon: A Story of Trust, Harm, and the Limits of Medical Regulation.

Author Sarah Rodriguez, a lecturer in medical education at Northwestern University'srodriguez-fall-2012.jpg Feinberg School of Medicine, and senior lecturer, Global Health Studies, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, sat down for a Q & A about her book and the insights it provides.  

What is the book about? 

Rodriguez: Dr. James Burt believed women’s bodies were broken, and only he could fix them. In the 1950s, this Ohio obstetrician/gynecologist developed what he called ‘love surgery,’ a procedure he maintained enhanced the sexual responses of a new mother, transforming her into, he claimed, ‘a horny little house mouse.’ Burt did so without first getting the consent of his patients. Yet, he was allowed to practice for over 30 years, harming hundreds of women in the process.  

The book explores what his crimes reveal about the failures of the medical establishment: How was he able to perform an untested surgical procedure? Why wasn’t he obliged to get informed consent from his patients? And why did it take his peers so long to take action? It’s both a medical horror story and a cautionary tale about the limits of professional self-regulation. 

Why did you write this book?

Rodriguez: I learned about Burt in graduate school when one of my professors happened to mention him and his love surgery to me. It sounded like one of those real-life events that seem stranger than fiction, and I wondered how it happened. I wrote the book essentially to figure out what happened and how he was stopped. 

What can we learn from this case?

Rodriguez: One thing we can learn from this case is even when physicians recognize one of their peers is acting unprofessionally, unethically, or abusively, a variety of factors -- including restraint of trade concerns, fears of lawsuits and even the time-consuming manner in which information regarding the problematic physician is accumulated -- can make it difficult to stop a problematic physician from practicing medicine. So while some local physicians did try and stop Burt, what is also clear from this case is patients, journalists, lawyers and legislators are also vital to stopping the practice of problematic doctors. 

Are the doctor’s crimes and the way he was allowed to continue ‘practicing’ medicine still relevant in terms of how women continue to be treated by the medical establishment?  

Rodriguez: I see this story as fitting in with other stories of women patients being abused by their doctors and of initially not being believed, or perhaps not feeling able to speak out. We have seen similar narratives in the recent cases of George Tyndall (the USC gynecologist accused of mistreatment and sexual abuse) and Larry Nassar (the gynecologist who abused female gymnasts at Michigan State University). In both these cases, and similarly with Burt, it was former patients and local journalists who were decisive in ending the careers of these abusive doctors. Women spoke up, their stories were taken seriously by journalists and investigated, and then the legal and medical establishments stepped in to stop the physician from practicing. The Burt story -- as with the more recent examples of Nassar and Tyndall -- all speak to the institutional power men have had, and continue to have within the medical establishment, over women patients and their bodies.     

Did you learn anything surprising while researching this book?

Rodriguez: I was surprised to learn many physicians did try to stop, or at least limit, Burt from practicing ‘love surgery,’ but that a variety of factors made it hard for physicians to completely stop him.  

I also was surprised at the central role local journalists played in this story. Although Burt was exposed publicly following the appearance of several of his former patients on a national television show, this was followed by local newspaper reporters who dug deeper into the Burt story and kept it in the forefront of news in the community. The demise of local newspapers and local journalism is deeply troubling for many reasons, including because of their important role in holding problematic physicians accountable. 

What needs to happen now for women or anyone to protect themselves medically? 

Rodriguez: At the end of my book I have a list of questions everyone should ask before undergoing an elective surgery, and I think people should ask these questions to ensure the surgery is in their best interests. Some of the questions I suggest someone ask include: Why do I need this surgery? Why are you recommending it? How will it improve my condition? What are the known risks for this surgery? Do you have any financial ties to this surgery – for example, if a device will be implanted, do you have a financial stake in the device company? Are there simpler, safer alternatives – such as physical therapy, exercising, a change in diet? What if we take a ‘wait-and-see’ approach? Is there a possibility the problem could resolve on its own?


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