A Tribute to Dr. Katharina Dalton
Written by Carol Petersen, RPh, CNP – Women’s International Pharmacy
Even though they’re not really funny, PMS jokes abound in today’s society. It’s very likely that most of us toss around the acronym of PMS (for premenstrual syndrome) without giving a thought as to where or how it originated.
In 1994, there was a movie titled Tom and Viv about the relationship of the American poet T.S. Eliot and his wife, Vivienne Haight-Wood Eliot, whom he married in 1915. Upon their marriage, he became the custodian not only of her money, but also of her physical being. Vivienne suffered terribly each month from what we now would recognize as PMS. After unsuccessfully trying to help her, T.S. Eliot had his wife committed to an asylum where she spent the remainder of her days. He never saw her again after she was committed. This movie reflected the thinking at that time. Women who suffered from hormone disturbances were thought to have mental rather than physical problems.
Dr. Katharina Dalton made a huge contribution to our understanding of hormone disturbances, and she is also the one who named the syndrome PMS. She identified and successfully treated many problems that were uniquely female. As we explore the mysteries and benefits of hormone therapies today, we are standing on the shoulders of her achievements, which include a tremendous amount of observation and study.
On her death at the age of 87 on September 17, 2004, Dr. Dalton’s life and work were reviewed by many major newspapers in Great Britain, where she practiced, and in the United States, where she also made a huge impact by identifying physical reasons for issues that had previously been dismissed as hysterical or only a figment of the mind. The concept of a women’s health movement may very well have started with her work.
At age 32, Dr. Dalton was still a medical student and pregnant when she wondered why she was suddenly free of the severe headaches she had experienced monthly. She took her observations to Dr. Raymond Greene, an endocrinologist, and speculated that progesterone, which is abundant during pregnancy and also should be abundant during the luteal phase (the second half of the menstrual cycle), might be the key. She and Dr. Greene first published their clinical experiences and theory in British medical journals in 1958, and proposed the term premenstrual syndrome. By then, Dr. Dalton had successfully treated premenstrual asthma, epilepsy, and migraine headaches with progesterone.
Progesterone, which has an effect throughout the body, is produced in the adrenal glands in addition to the progesterone produced by the ovaries. Dr. Dalton used progesterone that was equivalent in structure to the hormone found naturally in the human body. She was adamant that other synthetic derivatives of progesterone could not be used, contrary to what her medical colleagues believed.
Throughout her career, Dr. Dalton carefully examined her patients, collected data, posed theories, and tested her ideas. She developed a system of charting to help monitor the large number of symptoms that could present with PMS. An adaptation of the Symptoms Chart is available for download from our website.
One of Dr. Dalton’s observations was that some of the symptoms of PMS (including edema, hypertension, and albumin in the urine) seemed to also occur as early signs of toxemia in pregnancy. She began trials of intervention with progesterone, in collaboration with a maternity hospital. The hospital records showed an average incidence of toxemia to be 9%. After the first patients who were treated delivered babies in 1955, the incidence dropped to a low of 1.0%. Each patient was given a test dose of progesterone when early symptoms occurred, and then treated continually if symptoms resolved, while moderating the doses according to symptom relief.
Men, women, and children all have progesterone receptors in operation throughout their lifetime. Dr. Dalton focused her attention on progesterone receptors and, because only natural progesterone fits the receptors, she felt this was the only appropriate hormone to use. She also understood that, if there was too much adrenaline being produced, progesterone would not be able to be picked up by the receptors. Similarly, if women were experiencing swings of low blood sugar, progesterone would also not activate the receptor.
Dr. Dalton used very generous doses of progesterone to treat women; often a 400 mg suppository would be the minimum dose. Tests to measure levels of progesterone in the body using various means were immaterial, in her opinion, because the only meaningful test would be at the receptor sites. Successful treatment would be verified by a positive response to supplementation.
Dr. Dalton observed that progesterone has a very positive effect on hair growth in women. After delivery of a baby, many women experience significant hair loss because of the sudden drop in progesterone. When progesterone is supplemented for those women, the hair regrows luxuriantly.
Progesterone has also proven to be effective for brain trauma because of its protective effect on the myelin sheath, which covers nerve tissue. Additionally, progesterone can reduce swelling in the brain and has even been used by neurosurgeons prior to surgery.
Dr. Dalton also claimed that there was no unsafe dose of progesterone. In high enough doses, started before ovulation, progesterone could be used as a safe contraceptive. It was also safe to use with breast cancer, even concurrent with breast cancer treatments.
Prior to menopause, Dr. Dalton noticed that progesterone would typically start to become deficient for at least two years. During this time, women would develop symptoms that were similar to those she identified as PMS, which we now identify as symptoms of perimenopause.
She also identified the onslaught of symptoms some women experience after childbirth as having a pattern similar to PMS. She advocated for using large doses of progesterone immediately after childbirth, especially in those women with a history of PMS, to cushion them from the effects of the huge drop in progesterone that occurs at delivery.
Unlike current conventional thinking, Dr. Dalton claimed that women who have had a hysterectomy need more than the amount of progesterone needed by a woman who has undergone a natural menopause. The reasons behind most hysterectomies are consistent with a long-term progesterone deficiency; thus, so much more progesterone is needed to relieve symptoms afterwards. Ignoring the considerable research on progesterone receptors throughout the body, many practitioners today still believe that women with a hysterectomy do not need any progesterone because they maintain that it is only the uterus that benefits from progesterone and, because the uterus has been removed, progesterone no longer has any function.
As an active advocate in the justice system, Dr. Dalton also published a book titled Premenstrual Syndrome Goes to Court. She studied women serving time in prison and found that a large majority of the violent crimes committed (such as manslaughter, baby battering, and assault) occurred during the luteal phase in women who had a history of PMS symptoms. As part of her study, Dr. Dalton devised a menstrual chart indicating symptoms and their cyclical occurrence, helping the women establish the cyclical and hormone dependent nature of the symptoms. She appeared in court in about 50 trials in defense of women suffering from PMS and claiming a state of diminished responsibility if their criminal actions occurred during the luteal phase of their cycle.
She tried to find an independent marker for PMS and studied sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG). In the groups studied, she found that SHBG, which would bind estrogens and testosterone tightly, was low in the women suffering with PMS. She theorized that low SHBG translated into more free estrogens, which then created inadequate progesterone activity. This premise, unfortunately, was not verified by other scientists.
Dr. Dalton practiced the true scientific method. She made her observations based on the evidence she found, devised a theory that tested the observations she made, and tested her theory. She even applied her theory to situations beyond PMS, recognizing the implications of a host of different symptoms, to further an understanding of the importance of progesterone, as illustrated by her observations of patients with post-partum depression and toxemia during pregnancy.
Today, faced with the numerous symptoms that present with PMS, scientists only look at one issue at a time. Instead of turning to progesterone, which is indeed the golden key for progesterone receptors (as Dr. Dalton has shown), we treat PMS piecemeal with diuretics for edema, with narcotics and anti-inflammatories for pain, with anti-epileptics for seizures, and with antidepressants, anxiolytics, and antipsychotics for mood disorders.
Some say it takes 50 years for a new idea to take hold in our collective minds and, since we are now more than 50 years from her first publication, the time is now ripe for acceptance of Dr. Katharina Dalton’s work with progesterone. Pointing to the current widespread use of bioidentical hormone therapies in women’s health today as proof, perhaps her ideas have at last garnered a place in our consciousness.
- Gilbert B. Tom & Viv. Oxford, Oxfordshire, England, UK; Miramax Films; 1994.
- Oliver M. Katharina Dalton, 87; First Doctor to Define, Treat PMS [obituary]. Los Angeles Times. September 28, 2004.
- Dalton K, Holton W. Depression after Childbirth: How to Recognise, Treat, and Prevent Postnatal Depression (4th Edition). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press; 2001.
- Allen LV Jr, et al. Interview: Katharina Dalton, MD: Progesterone and Related Topics. Int J Pharm Compd. 1999 Sep/Oct:332-9.
- Dalton K, Holton W. Once a Month: Understanding and Treating PMS (6th Edition). Alameda, CA: Hunter House Publishers; 1999.
- Dalton K. Premenstrual Syndrome Goes to Court. Droitwich, UK: Peter Andrew Publishing Co Ltd; 1990.
- Dalton K. Should Premenstrual Syndrome be a Legal Defense? In: Ginsburg BE, Carter BF, eds. Premenstrual Syndrome: Ethical and Legal Implications in a Biomedical Perspective. Boston, MA: Springer-Verlag US; 1987:287-300.
- Dalton ME. Sex hormone-binding globulin concentrations in women with severe premenstrual syndrome. Postgrad Med J. 1981 Sep;57(671):560-1.
- Dalton K. Toxaemia of Pregnancy Treated with Progesterone during the Symptomatic Stage. Br Med J. 1957 Aug 17;2(5041):378-81.