Anyone who knows anything about Frida Kahlo knows that her miscarriages were a prominent theme in her work. The artist’s struggles with pregnancy and the deaths of her unborn are captured in some of her most haunting autobiographical portrayals. Her personal meditation on loss and birth are grim, but make no pretenses about the emotionally wrenching experience of losing a baby. And yet her troubled reproductive system reportedly left the doctors of her era puzzled, until some 50 years later, when a modern doctor claims to have her exact diagnosis.
Dr. Fernando Antelo, a surgical pathologist at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, took it upon himself to investigate why one of modern art’s most gifted painters could not carry a child to term. The sympathetic doctor looked to her paintings for clues, citing an obligation to determine her diagnosis:
“I think it’s one of those things where we owe it to Frida,” says Antelo, noting that many of Kahlo’s paintings contain images related to reproduction and fertility, but only historians, not doctors, have delved into why the artist was unable to have a baby.
Dr. Antelo diagnosed the late Frida with Asherman’s syndrome, first noted in 1894. Msnbc reports that the rare condition is caused by scar tissue lining the uterus, now usually in response to dilatation and curettage (D&C). But in the case of Frida, the doctor posits that her uterine scar tissue developed due to her notorious streetcar accident in which a metal rail pierced her abdomen damaging several internal organs, including her uterus.
As much as Dr. Antelo’s investigation into Frida’s fertility problems is heartfelt given how much the artist truly wanted to bear children, his findings wouldn’t have done much good in her era. Had Frida even been diagnosed correctly, the 1930s didn’t exactly accommodate the technology or science necessary to treat such a condition. Even more tragic, Dr. Antelo says, is that her many miscarriages and therapeutic abortions worsened her condition over the years.
Nevertheless, the doctor’s dedication to understanding one renowned woman’s fertility struggle further illuminates many of her most powerful and noted pieces.