How did a project begun in 1934 by a male biometrician and biochemist named Alan Treloar end up under the direction of two feminist women's health researchers, first Ann Voda in 1984, and then Phyllis Kernoff Mansfield in 1998? How did a study designed to examine the statistical implications of menstrual regularity become one of the largest and oldest woman-centered studies of menstruation and health in the world? The story of the founding of this remarkable program, known today as the Tremin Research Program on Women's Health, its participants, the information collected, and its key studies is the subject of this essay. The authors, in an effort to document the long and sometimes rocky history of this project, as well as to acknowledge the contributions of many unsung heroes/heroines along the way, are completing a monograph on Tremin history and contributions, along with an annotated bibliography of scientific papers related to the program (Mansfield & Bracken, in press). This essay contains highlights from that monograph.
History of a Pioneering Program on Menstruation and Women's Health
In 1934, a landmark study of women's health and menstruation began at the University of Minnesota; it continues to this day. Alan Treloar, long-time director of the program, originally known as the Menstrual and Reproductive Health (MRH) Program, and now known as the Tremin Research Program, is often credited as the sole founder and driving force behind this pioneering work in women's health. Not surprisingly, however, as we delved deeper into the program's history, we discovered that there were many other people-women-involved in establishing and continuing this research project dedicated exclusively to studying women's menstruation and related reproductive and other health issues. The MRH/Tremin Program flourished thanks to the contributions of several women who were/are dedicated to founding/ continuing a study conducted by women, about women, and ultimately for women.
Three of these women were responsible for helping Treloar launch the program in the first place. In the early 1930s, when Treloar was on the biometry faculty at the University of Minnesota, he became interested in the question of whether menstrual intervals occurred at regular, 28-day intervals, as medical advice of the time taught (and, parenthetically, still does!), or whether errors of recall had biased earlier data. Whether he would have moved forward with a research project on this topic without the support of three female colleagues is unknown, but we do know that he was fortunate enough to be working with three talented female collaborators. One was Ruth Boynton, a physician at the University of Minnesota Health Service, who, like Treloar, was interested in the question of menstrual regularity and who eventually sponsored the pilot study. Boynton became Treloar's "front door lady, because [he] couldn't get in, with a man's name, and [he] wasn't an MD either" (A. Treloar, personal communication, April 24, 1979). The second key figure was a "very attractive young lady" (A. Treloar, personal communication, January 10, 1984) named Esther Doerr (later Summers), whose master's research served as the pilot study for the MRH. Together with Treloar, Boynton and Doerr worked to recruit 1,100 women into a "biometric study of the premarital menstrual interval" and set about developing a research protocol, ranging from subject recruitment to data collection and analysis (Doerr, 1936). Borghild Gunstad (later Behn), a third collaborator, joined the efforts, taking on the role of planning and conducting statistical analyses of the data collected.
A fourth woman inadvertently influenced Treloar to study menstruation. Treloar tells the story of a visit in 1929 to his bride-to-be's home, where he "noted a paleness in her face and lack of her usual gaiety. . . . Very little time passed before moans from that room stirred my impulsive entrance [into] that room. …