Removal of a woman’s ovaries (known as bilateral oophorectomy, ovariectomy or, historically, ovariotomy) is undertaken in a number of countries. An estimated 19 000 women aged <60 years had a bilateral prophylactic oophorectomy in the UK in 2003, either as a planned response to an increased specific genetic risk of ovarian or breast cancer or, more frequently, as a prophylactic measure to prevent ovarian cancer. Despite its popularity, however, a full evaluation of the risks, costs and benefits of prophylactic oophorectomy in the absence of genetic markers and at the time of hysterectomy has not yet been undertaken. This paper seeks to provide a historical perspective on current practice by outlining approaches to the ovary in Britain from the 19th century onwards. Historically, ovarian removal has raised many questions about the costs and benefits of surgery. The aim of this article is to highlight the issues, and in so doing, to contribute to a more informed assessment of current practice.
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Competing interests: None declared.