Frida Kahlo's Mysterious Infertility Diagnosed Through Her Paintings

Frida Kahlo's paintings may have provided clues to her health. Guillermo Kahlo/Sotheby's [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

Paintings by the world-famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo often depicted the tragic pains of her life, including chronic pain, surgeries and infertility.

Now, more than 50 years after her death, a doctor who studied her paintings may have come up with the reason Kahlo was infertile. According to Fernando Antelo, a surgical pathologist at the Harbor UCLA Medical Center, Kahlo may have suffered from an undiagnosed condition called Asherman's syndrome.

Asherman's syndrome is a rare condition caused by scarring of the uterine cavity, sometimes caused during surgical scraping or cleaning of the uterine wall, according to WebMD. Symptoms can include reduced menstrual flow, painful cramping, or even the cessation of menstrual cycles. It can also cause infertility or miscarriages.

Antelo says that a streetcar accident when Kahlo was just a teenager may have created the uterine scarring that causes Asherman's syndrome. The accident, which occurred in September 1925 when Kahlo was just 18 years old, caused multiple injuries, including a broken spinal column, a broken pelvis, and multiple other broken bones. Most tellingly for Antelo, her abdomen was pierced by a metal handrail.

"The penetration of the streetcar handrail through Kahlo's adolescent body caused trauma to the uterus — critically injuring the endometrial lining and resulting in significant scar formation within the uterine cavity," Antelo said in a prepared release. "The scar formation in her uterine cavity is theorized to have played a role in the continual miscarriages and pregnancy failures that Kahlo experienced." Kahlo suffered multiple miscarriages and had at least three abortions for medical reasons during her lifetime.

Antelo says Kahlo's own paintings, which were often self-portraits, provided the clues for his diagnosis. For example, the 1932 painting "Henry Ford's Hospital" depicted the artist on a bloody hospital bed surrounded by a male fetus, a snail, a fractured female pelvic bone, and a cruel-looking machine, all attached to her body with blood-red umbilical cords. Kahlo herself had said that the fetus embodied the child she wished to have and the snail represented the slow pain of miscarriage.

"Kahlo shares with us her painful memories of miscarriage and loss," Antelo said. "As you study and recognize the anatomic detail in her paintings, you begin to realize that Kahlo has been talking to doctors and studying medical books."

Antelo said that he felt connected to Kahlo not just through her paintings, but also her pain, saying he also suffers back pain from a past car accident.

Today, Asherman's syndrome most commonly occurs as a result of dilation and curettage (D&C;), a procedure to clear out the uterine cavity after childbirth, miscarriage or abortion. While it was first described by medical science in 1894, doctors in Kahlo's day did not have the equipment or expertise to diagnose her with the condition.

Antelo presented his findings on April 22 at the annual meeting of the American Association of Anatomists.