Monstrous History Part III: The “Gothic” Influence of Ambroise Paré

Welcome back to the Dittrick Museum Blog! Last week, we discussed some of the finer points of birth anomaly in the 18th century. Today, we will consider the ways in which Paré’s work influenced the writers of the nineteenth century!

As the Age of Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century promoted scientific and philosophical progress. By the latter part of the century, causation (in reproduction but also in relation to disease) had largely left Pare’s metaphysical behind in medical treatises—but it enjoyed renewed fervor in the popular press. Two broad categories of work regularly printed stories of monster birth. The first were collections of medical or philosophical transactions, like those published by the Royal Society of London. Conjoined twins appeared frequently in these cases. Paré’s suggested cause of these malformations (in addition to the censure of God) was “too great a quantity of seed.”[1] Many of the printed cases from the transactions refrain from discussing causation and instead focus on descriptive account:

This monstrous female birth had two heads, both the faces very well shaped. The left face looked swarthy and never breathed; that head was also the larger. The right head was perceived to breathe; but not heard to cry. Between the heads was a protuberance, like another shoulder. The breast and clavicles very large; about 7 inches broad. It had only 2 hands and 2 feet.[2]

The account also includes a complete description of the autopsy and the weight of various organs with special attention paid to the organs of generation (particularly noted are the size and position of the clitoris and vagina of this female child). A further account from the Royal Society (October 1765) includes a child without a skull, similar to the case quoted at the start of this paper: “It was a female child, come to its full time, in which the whole skull, excepting its basis, was wanting: this was covered with something which had the appearance of red flesh.” The midwife found it to “consist of different membranes; and in a small depression, in a back part of the basis of the skull, lay the brain, such as it was.”[3] Paré also includes accounts of “headless” children [4] and such also appeared as “wonders” in the Travels of Sir John Mandeville: “Headless monsters with faces between their shoulders; Men with tails, and men with horns.”[5]

The second category of works that reprinted monster births include the likes of Kirby’s wonderful and scientific museum: or, Magazine of remarkable charactersThe Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, The Political State of Great Britain, and The Weekly Journal or British Gazatteer. These pseudo-scientific collections and popular press publications do, no doubt, contain actual data on abnormal births that were circulated in much the same way physical “wonders” were. Marc Cazotte, who suffered from Phocomelia (in which the child is born with hands and feet but neither legs nor arms) traveled in public exhibition as Pépin through the latter part of the century.[6] As Helen King describes: “science and street performance overlapped not only to spread information, but also to instill a sense of wonder” [7] —a strange contradiction considering the “danger” of monstrosity to pregnant women, still a widely held belief. In addition to actual accounts of malformation and monstrous birth, however, collections and the popular press also included fantastic stories of half-human fusions of mythic proportions. And in between these extremes we find curious tales made more curious in the telling, wherein the narrative structure—mimicking Gothic and Romance motifs—create, promote and reproduce the sense of horror.

One extraordinary account harkens back to actual myth; published in The Political State in February of 1731, a woman is “brought to Bed of a Monster, of the Figure of a Satyr.”[8] Similar accounts of animal-human fusions are remarked upon throughout the period, the dog-human being the most popular.[9] Paré’s work—which likely informs or inspires many of these accounts—also includes dog-children, but also cites the reverse, animals giving birth to humanoid creatures (the male owners of which are banished or threatened with death for their abominable “deed”). Similar accounts are circulated in miscellanies and travel documents, from Nathaniel Crouch’s 1710 Admirable curiosities, rarities, & wonders to R. S. Kirby’s first collection, The New Wonderful Museum, and Extraordinary Magazine. Kirby’s modest claim: to provide “a Complete Repository of All the Wonders, Curiosities, and Rarities of Nature and Art, from the Beginning of the World to the Present Year.” A compendium of five volumes, the last published in 1820, Kirby’s Magazine collects and reprints not only from Paré but from the other medical and mythic accounts of monstrosity. Thus, though Paré’s work was increasingly shunned by the medical establishment as mere fiction, writers and readers continued to enjoy, to reprint, and to embellish  his work. Not only does the magazine include monstrous births similar to those reported in medical treatise, it also follows these “monsters” into adulthood, providing stories of bad omens and worse behavior that could easily exist alongside the growing body of Gothic fictions. One of my favorites is the wolf-like boy, who is hairy and chained to the house post by his mother. Another is the “creeping” girl, a woman who never eats but yet stays in blooming health with blood red lips (not unlike Stoker’s vampires).

Even though nineteenth-century midwifery leaves Les Monstres behind in favor of increasing medicalization of birth (including the use of ether, beginning in 1848), Paré’s combination of monstrosity and science, serves (perhaps ironically) to engender gothic tales of dreadful monstrosity. By 1812, we have Frankenstein, with its peculiar composite body and male-birth scene. I can give no greater testament to the influence of monstrous birth than to compare that account with one from midwifery accounts:

The whole of that part of the cranium or brain case, with its usual contents, which is naturally covered with hairy scalp, was absolutely wanting, and the foramen magnum occipitis covered with a blood exerescence […] I feared it would survive.

 —Dr. Stryker, Letter to the Editor, Feb 28, 1809

His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath […] his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set […] no mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch.  

—Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Chapter 5, Frankenstein 1818

Thus, while Ambroise Paré may not have directly influenced Mary Shelley and her latter-century Gothic compatriots, the sense of wonder, of marvel, and even of horror present in Paré’s work lives on to succeeding generations of “monsters.”

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About Brandy Schillace 

A medical humanist, literary scholar and writer of Gothic fiction, Dr. Brandy Schillace spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between medical history and literature. She is the Managing Editor, Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry and has worked as an assistant professor of literature. She also leads interdisciplinary conferences abroad for IDnet and spends a lot of her time in museums and medical libraries.

[1] Paré, 8.
[2] Charles Hutton, George Shaw, and Richard Pearson. The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, from Their Commencement, in 1665, to the Year 1800: 1672-1683. Vol 2. (London: 1809), 430.
[3] Ibid., 404.
[4] Paré, 36.
[5] Coxe, John Redman. The Philadelphia medical museum, Volume 6. (Philadelphia, 1809), 374.
[6] Speert, 373.
[7] King, Helen. Midwifery, Obstetrics and the Rise of Gynaecology: The Uses of a Sixteenth Century Compendium. (Burlington: Ashgate, 2007), 112.
[8] “A Further Account of Advises from Foreign Parts.” The Political State, Vol 41. (London: Jan-June, 1731), 161.
[9] “three monsters with shoulders, claws and heads like dogs were born to a rich and beautiful young lady who lay with a large water dog” (1720) Perry, 150.

Monstrous History Part II: The “Gothic” Influence of Ambroise Paré

Last week, I introduced the “monsters and marvels” of Ambroise Paré. This unique text is not a collection only (or even primarily) of cases witnessed by the good doctor. Such treatises also existed, and became more popular over time. Both Dr. William Smellie and Dr. William Hunter published extensively about their practices, and many doctors described difficult labors or unusual births. Paré’s 15th century text is, however, much more a compendium; he collects tales from afar, gathers anecdotes from ancient manuscripts and compiles accounts from myth and local legend. Parts of the book actually discuss strange animals from foreign climes, and there is a fairly accurate depiction of what we now know to be a skate or sting ray. To his readers, these accounts of marvels would be mystery as much as medicine.  The image above left was one of the more verified accounts, and the man in the picture in his mid-forties. According to Paré, many came to see him–as they did other “marvels–and a number of “birth monsters” were put on display for money.

Other descriptions that are fairly well-verified (or at least imaginable) include conjoined twins and babies born with double organs. Below is an account of a man with a second head (rather than a second body) protruding from the naval.

In addition to these figures, Paré also describes some very unusual wonders–including children who appear to be half-animal, are born with fur and claws or tails, or who seem to be a hybrid creature of numerous species. These hybrid marvels are important to consider from the standpoint of midwifery, as the cause of such monstrosity lay blame not only on fate or the stars, but also on parents–particularly mothers–whose imaginations were thought to cause the anomaly. The figure below was thought to result from a woman holding a live frog in her hand to ward off a fever on the night she conceived. (It is to be assumed, of course, that she put the frog down first).

Interestingly, Paré’s sixteenth-century sensibility about the cause of monstrous birth was still present and highly debated in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Joseph Duverney, professor of anatomy (1648-1730), considered monstrosity a problem of divine origin—and divine wrath. Physician Nicholas Lemery (1645-1715), by contrast, believed in accidental origins and Jacques Winslow (1669-1760) suggested “accidental causes could mask metaphysical [that is, divine] forces.”[1] Other major thinkers of the period—from Nicolas Malebranche to Denis Diderot—returned to this question in philosophical works. Malebranche (member of the Académie Royale des Sciences) published Tractatus de inquisitione veritatis in 1753. The text, which was translated into English and reprinted throughout the 18th century, was critical to popularizing the idea that mother imagination could cause birth defects—a devastating assumption also present in Paré, who claimed “monsters should not live among us,” as they could imprint upon the “fruit” of pregnant women because of the “ideas which might remain in their imaginative faulty, over the form of so monstrous a creature.”[2] Two devastating consequences arise from this philosophy. The first is the estrangement and banishment of the malformed individual (and Paré includes among these those who have been marred by accident or illness as well). Such points continue to be made into the eighteenth century; a letter published in The Political State, February 1731, suggests the banishment of beggars, who must surely affect the developing fetus—and delicate feelings—of pregnant women.[3] The second consequence, however, is of longer standing: that is, the continued culpability of mothers in the malformation of their children. Enlightenment medicine did much to elucidate the complexities of generation and birth, particularly as to anatomy, but it did little to dispel the lingering horror of the monster birth—or to curb its enthusiastic reception among a reading public curious for marvels.

Ruth Perry reports on a number of “monster” birth cases in the 18th century, including one about a dead infant being half-consumed by live snakes. It was printed in The Weekly Journal or British Gazatteer on October 20th, 1722.[4] However, it is in fact a re-telling (with embellishment) from Paré’sMonsters and Marvels. In Paré’s account, the child “had a live snake attached to its back, who was gnawing on this little dead creature”.[5] But Paré was citing Lycosthenes from 1494, and for all we know, Lycosthenes was reporting a marvel earlier still. The same may be said of the 365 children of Countess of Hennebrg, 1276; whether fabrication or the result of hydatidiform mole, the story of her miraculous brood was still being circulated well into later centuries—even appearing in broadsheet ballad form as “The Lamenting Lady.”[6] The eighteenth century account of the dead-baby-live-snakes improvises as well, not in form so much as character. The account in the British Gazatteer introduces new agents—a frightened female midwife, and a valiant husband who kills the snakes. In any case, these stories of monster births are perhaps most marvelous for their ability to fire the imagination of successive generations of readers—each adding to it that which was appropriate to their particular historical moment.

In part three, I will talk about the lingering use of Paré’s work in the latter 18th and early 19th century… And a different sort of “monster” birth: thenaissance of Gothic fiction.
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About Brandy Schillace 

A medical humanist, literary scholar and writer of Gothic fiction, Dr. Brandy Schillace spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between medical history and literature. She is the Managing Editor, Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry and has worked as an assistant professor of literature. She also leads interdisciplinary conferences abroad for IDnet and spends a lot of her time in museums and medical libraries.

[1] “The 18th Century: Monsters as a Battleground”
[2] Paré, 9.
[3] “A Further Account of Advises from Foreign Parts.” The Political State, Vol 41. (London: Jan-June, 1731), 161.
[4] Perry, Ruth. “The Veil of Chastity.” Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century Britain. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982), 147.
[5] Paré, 58.
[6] Speert, Harold. Obstetrics and Gynecology: A History and Iconography, 3rd Ed. (New York: Parthenon Publishing Ltd.), 393-394

Monstrous History: The “Gothic” Influence of Ambroise Paré

Monsters are things that appear outside the course of Nature (and are usually signs of forthcoming misfortune).

–Ambroise Paré

Welcome back to the Dittrick Museum Blog!

Last week, we discussed the “curious machine” of man-midwife Dr. William Smellie. This week, I will introduce Ambroise Pare and the birth of “monsters.” The images that Dr. Parécollected in Des Monstres et prodigies(1573) continued to fire the imagination well into the 18th and 19th centuries, a time that witness the “birth” of Gothic monsters, as well. The Dittrick’s collection includes a fine edition of this work, and it is replete with fascinating images, some of which I will introduce today (with more to follow!)

By the time Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Prometheus Unbound was published, the Gothic tradition was well established, though still evolving. The early romances that shaped Radcliffian Gothic were both revisited and reshaped by the sublime imagination of Romantic writers (a group to whom Shelley herself belonged.) However, increasing interest in and access to scientific discourse provided additional material; widespread debate about electrical stimulation and reflex, William Cullen and Robert Whytt’s work on the nervous system, and Charles Bell’s theories on the anatomy of the brain were fertile ground for imaginative speculation and certainly part of the cultural context near the time of Frankenstein’s publication. The monstrosity of the man-made man nonetheless has its predecessor in the monstrosity of “woman-made man,” the deformed and monstrous child of the equally horrific and mysterious womb. By the end of the 17th century, scientific societies has begun to question “wonderful” and monstrous accounts, but though wonders “had lost their aura,”[1] the monstrous continued to interest and enthrall (and sell newspapers and side-show tickets). This series of posts will explore the medicalization of birth in the eighteenth century and its representation not only in scientific debate but also in sensationalized news accounts which—like early versions of the “penny dreadful,” circulated tales of terror. London papers, magazines and popular miscellanies published records of horrific births, even as the “orphaned” child and “monstrous” mother became a trope for Gothic fiction.

There are records of unusual, malformed or “monstrous” births in every culture, from early renderings on cave walls to the detailed astrological tables of the Chaldeans and the myths of the Greeks.[2] The first formal collected account of these births is probably that of Julius Obsequens (fourth century), who listed the “miraculous” births from Caesar to his present.[3] However, by the 15th century, miraculous and monstrous accounts had become a genre unto themselves; The Marvels of the East and the 1493 “Nuremberg Chronicle” (based on The Travels of Sir John Mandeville) collected supposed monsters from distant lands[4] —most of which were entirely fictitious, a few of which were likely based upon malformations and physical deformity.[5] However, arguably the most famous of collected “monster” accounts is that of Ambroise Paré, surgeon and humanist of the mid-sixteenth century. His Des Monstres et prodigies (1573) was reprinted (as a full text) for more than 300 years, appearing in English translation as late as 1840 (and, in fact, again in 1982). More interestingly, the work appeared piecemeal throughout the eighteenth century, reprinted in miscellanies, magazines and popular accounts, the anomalous births passed off as current events.

The utility of Paré’s text comes, in part, from its structure. Using knowledge of books on natural history, Paré wrote a 519-page work on reproduction in two parts—the first dealt with surgical concerns, the second with monster births. Though early records also include miracle births under the “monstrous” (the Greek myths of Athena and Dionysus may be thought of in this fashion) the lexicon was ever-changing. The origins of the word “monster” are debatable; the Oxford English Dictionary suggests a Latin derivation, monstrum, “a warning or potent,” and Paré was clearly concerned with why the “natural” or normalized birth did not occur.[6] The monster is, at best unnatural, at worst, a demonized creature and punishment from God: “Monsters are things that appear outside the course of Nature (and are usually signs of forthcoming misfortune).[7] Marvels, too, are “against nature,” and may—along with monstrosity—reveal the “judgment of God, who permits fathers and mothers to produce such abominations from the disorder that they make in copulation, like brutish beasts, in which their appetite guides them.”[8]
Interestingly, Paré’s sixteenth-century sensibility about the cause of monstrous birth was still present and highly debated in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. In next week’s post, I will talk more about the influence of Paré’s text–and provide more of the images from the Dittrick’s incredible edition of his work!
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About Brandy Schillace 

A medical humanist, literary scholar and writer of Gothic fiction, Dr. Brandy Schillace spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between medical history and literature. She is the Managing Editor, Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry and has worked as an assistant professor of literature. She also leads interdisciplinary conferences abroad for IDnet and spends a lot of her time in museums and medical libraries.
 
[1] “The 18th Century: Monsters as a Battleground for Scientific and Philosophical Debates,” A Telling of Wonders, Exhibit of the New York Academic of Medicine Rare Book Room. Jul 7, 2012. < http://www.nyam.org/library/rare-book-room/exhibits/telling-of-wonders/ter9.html.>
[2] Speert, Harold. Obstetrics and Gynecology: A History and Iconography, 3rd Ed. (New York: Parthenon Publishing Ltd.), 361-362.
[3] Ibid., 362.
[4] Ibid, 374.
[5] The lengthy history of such accounts has been traced by Jean Céard’s La Nature et les prodigesand Stephen Asma’s On Monsters: An Unnatural History  
[6] Pallister, Janis, introduction to On Monsters and Marvels, by Ambroise Paré (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982), xxvii.
[7] Paré, Ambroise. On Monsters and Marvels. Ed. Janis Pallister. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982), 3.
[8] Ibid., 3, 5.

On the Trail of the “Machine,” Part 2: The Lady Vanishes

Last week, I discussed the unusual nature of William Smellie’s “celebrated apparatus,” or mechanized obstetrical phantom. Today, I will continue with part two, where I give contemporary physician Peter Camper’s laudatory description–and discuss the woman-machine’s vanishing act. –Brandy Schillace
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After attending Smellie’s lectures, he described the “contraction of both the internal and external os, the generation of water in parturition and dilatation of the os uteri are so natural that hardly any difference is to be noticed between these, and those in natural women.” [1] From Camper, a physician and surgeon certainly aware of actual anatomy, such a claim is high praise, if a little unnerving. The fetus dolls were, says Camper, also “excellently contrived, they having all the Motions of the Joints. Their Craniums are so formed as to give way to any Force exerted, and are so Elastick that the Pressure is no sooner taken off than they return to their natural Equalities.”[2] Afterbirth was represented by “various leathers,” and the “change in the os tincae are noted and made clear by colours.’”[3] The mystery of their composition is worth considering, too. India rubber was not readily available or understood until at least the mid-eighteenth century—and only recommended for medical use after 1768, when researchers Hérissant and Macquer recommended that it could be used for probes and tubes in laboratories.[4]

Though I have been able, through these sources, to reconstruct some sense of its appearance and workings, we still have but a fragmentary image: a machine, activated by levers, complete with a contracting uterus, tendon, tissue, organs—and possibly clothes; a fetus, with movable joints and some sort of “skin” surrounding an elastic and flexible cranium. Even when we put all the descriptions together, we seem to have more questions than answers, for there are no images of this curious device (an absence I ruminate on in “Mother Machine: ‘An Uncanny Valley’ in the Eighteenth-Century,” The Appendix Journal 1.2). Why wasn’t it reproduced? And—to return to the original question—where did it go? Other automatons, from Vacaunson’s flute player to the “defecating duck” remain and are even coveted. What became of this “mock woman”?


Without images, and with few clues, tracking the device is difficult. We can, however, trace the
purchase history of at least one: Dr. William Hunter was in attendance at the auction after Dr. Smellie’s death and bought one of the devices.[5] Hunter himself does not have the contrivance illustrated, however, nor does he put it on display alongside his Gravid Uterus. He does not offer it to the public in any way, in fact, and it is only with great difficulty (and much letter writing) that he is at last compelled to sell the device to someone who would. In 1774, an old pupil of Smellie’s, Dr. Edward Foster, purchased the mechanical woman, but shortly after it travels from England to Ireland, it passes out of record altogether.

This, you might know, occasioned my first trip to Dublin. I gave a lecture on my discoveries at the University College of Dublin for the Irish Centre for Nursing and Midwifery History—but my main purpose for traveling was to continue the (increasingly vain) search. I had hoped to find some reference to the device at the Rotunda, but alas—it was not meant to be. I did, however, discover advertisements in the archives; Foster expressed an intent to deliver two courses of lectures every winter, and one or two courses during the summer, in order “to establish a regular School of Midwifery in this City, by which Students may have an opportunity of attending, the whole Year, or at any particular Season.”[6] The lectures appear to have proceeded as planned—but Foster’s hopes were never fully realized. Shortly after, on April 1, 1779, Foster dies of a sudden-onset fever. Biographical reference to Foster are scarce beyond his short career as Assistant Master, but some further evidence is available in the archives of the Royal College of Physicians. There are three references—one to his marriage in 1768 to the daughter of Charles Lucas in the Freeman’s Journal; one to his treatise The Skeleton (which contains reference to Smellie’s other machines); and one to his death announcement in the Walker Hibernian.[7] Unlike the sale catalog of Smellie’s extensive medical collection, no record remains concerning the whereabouts of Foster’s effects. Because of the suddenness of Foster’s passing, it is possible that he died intestate—but anything from this period is, unfortunately, difficult to verify.

My search for the device began with unanswered questions—and unfortunately, it ends with them as well. The fire of 1922 (during the Irish Civil War) destroyed a great many records. Only the probated wills survive, as they were housed elsewhere. We know, for instance, that the will of Foster’s father-in-law was proved in the Irish Prerogative Court, but the document itself perished. Back-checking the secondary spelling of Foster’s name (Forster) only reveals that his wife survived him. He was living in Stafford Street at this period of time, and there was in later years a hospital nearby, but I have found no connection between his effects and that location.

What I have discovered is my increasing love of archival research, even though, as I remark in “Mother Machine,” some archeological searches ends just this way, “with many hours spent sifting sand to find… only more sand.”[8] I was unable to find the device itself, but through the aid of museum collections public and private, archivists, librarians and curators, I embarked on something just as worthwhile: a satisfying journey through our shared human past. In the process of searching for history, I found instead myself—a greater understanding of the things that move me. In the coming months, I look forward to sharing more of these “journeys,” and I encourage you to become active participants—not readers only, but museum goers, citizen historians, and curious and intrepid souls.

Welcome to the history of medicine!

[1] Qtd. In Johnstone, William, 25.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Qtd. In Ibid, 27.
[4] Brannt, William Theodore. India Rubber, gulta-percha, and balata. (Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird and Company, 1900): 2-3.
[5] King, Midwifery, 134.
[6] Kirkpatrick, Book of the Rotunda, 81-82.
[7] The Kirkpatrick Newspaper Archive, RCPI I am ever grateful to the National Archive, and particularly to Gregory O’Connor, Higher Archivist, for his patience and assistance.
[8] Schillace, Brandy. “Mother Machine: An ‘Uncanny Valley’ in the Eighteenth-Century.” The Appendix Journal, 1.2 (April 2013), 71.

About Brandy Schillace 

A medical humanist, literary scholar and writer of Gothic fiction, Dr. Brandy Schillace spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between medical history and literature. She is the Managing Editor, Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry and has worked as an assistant professor of literature. She also leads interdisciplinary conferences abroad for IDnet and spends a lot of her time in museums and medical libraries.

On the Trail of the Machine: William Smellie’s “Celebrated Apparatus”

Last week, Dr. Edmonson (curator of the Dittrick Museum), provided a kind introduction to my work. Today, I am happy to continue the tale with part one of a two-part series.

       This journey took place over the course of three years, on two continents–and through the wonderful collections of several museums, beginning with our own Dittrick. I give you the tale–of a trail.
–Brandy Schillace, PhD
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On the Trail of the Machine: William Smellie’s “Celebrated Apparatus”
What is the lifespan of a medical device? Most generally, the utility of any instrument determines its tenure in medical practice—and subsequent models evolve to replace their predecessors. Amanda Carson Banks tracks just such an evolution in her work on birthing chairs (1999); studying this material helps us to understand why both the definitions and the practices of birth underwent radical change over time.[i] Her work points to a powerful connection between social history and its artifacts—something also provided by scholars such as Brigitte Jordan (Birth in Four Cultures) and numerous anthropological accounts from more specific contexts. But what occurs when we begin not with the artifact itself, but its disappearance?
            The question above occurred to me for the first time five years ago, while I was working on my dissertation. While researching a chapter on Augustan women’s education and mechanical habits (now an article with Feminist Formations 25.1 as  “’Reproducing’ Custom”), I came across the most unusual constellation of references. Described, variously, as “this most curious machine,” “this mock woman,” and the “celebrated Apparatus,”[ii] Dr. William Smellie’s mechanized obstetrical manikin seemed to be both science and spectacle, a mechanical woman that “gave birth” to leather dolls before eager students of man-midwifery.  Such an image teased my imagination, so naturally, with the dissertation complete, I went looking for more information about its history and whereabouts. Strangely, however, though crucial to the training of at least 900 man-midwives in ten years, the machine simply vanishes from the records! There are a number of well-preserved and well-documented versions of Madame de Coudray’s birthing machines; I’ve seen the primary one at the Musée Flaubert et d’histoire de la Médecine in Rouen, France, and the Dittrick museum has a simplified model from the same period. Remarkably, however, I could find no images, no models, no sketches and no copies of Smellie’s device. Surely, I thought, it must be somewhere… and so the search began.
            I was already familiar with the extensive collection of birth-related material at the Dittrick Medical History Museum, and so naturally began by contacting Dr. Edmonson. This connection, my curiosity, and what has been at times described as bull-dog-like tenacity, inaugurated a two-year exploration not of the lifespan of the artifact, but its afterlife, a task as fraught with difficulty as any exhumation. In a strange counter to material culture analysis, I had to define what was not by rendering as plain as possible what was—the history surrounding the device itself. What I have pieced together from student notes, detractors and sale catalogs presents a most unusual and often-contradictory picture.
The device emerged during the passionately debated shift from female to male midwifery practice. In a relatively short space of time, man-midwifery developed from the rare intervention of surgeons to a robust practice, wherein the female midwife (if not castigated as a rustic or vilified as a witch) served at the pleasure of the surgeon. This “unexplained revolution”[iii] has captured the attention and imagination of many—from medical historians like Adrian Wilson and Lisa Foreman Cody to literary critics like Bonnie Blackwell and Meghan Burke. A confluence of events led to this shift, including changes in the “bodily and social event” of childbirth with the advent of lying-in hospitals, as well as changes in fashion, politics, and social structure (in the Foucaultian sense).[iv]  It is also true that cases like the Rabbit Breeder of Godalming brought midwifery to embarrassing public notice; in 1727 Mary Toft mimicked birth pangs and contractions and fooled a number of midwives and surgeons into believing she had given birth to a brood of (dead of “still born” rabbits). The case was finally overturned by surgeon Sir Richard Manningham’s threat of live vivisection upon Toft, who confessed to the hoax. In this new model, the mystery of female anatomy would be rendered plain not only through better anatomies, but in part through surgeon’s instruments—and this emphasis gave “birth” to remarkable inventions.
Mechanical automations of various sorts gained popularity in the eighteenth century. There were also a number of obstetrical manikins in use during the period, but Smellie’s mechanized obstetrical phantoms deserve to be treated in a class by themselves. Described as a mechanical genius, Smellie—and his devices—earned the awe of students and even detractors. One of his pupils writes:
[Dr. Smellie was] An uncommon Genius in all sorts of mechanicks, which after having shewed itself in many other Improvements he manifested in the machines which he has contrived for teaching the Art of Midwifery. Machines which Dr. Desaguliers, who frequently visited him, allowed to be infinitely preferable to all that he had ever seen of the same kind, and which I (from having seen those that are used at Paris) will aver to be by far the best that were ever invented.[v] 

The apparatus” allowed Smellie to “perform and demonstrate all the different kinds of Delivery with more Deliberation, Perspicuity and Fulness than can be expected on real Subjects.”[i] Even the leather delivery dolls were considered more “life-like” than the child-cadavers used by M. Grégoire’s training school in Paris, for “the Coldness of the Child, the Flabbiness of the Parts, and the skin’s coming off at the least Touch, makes the Delivery seem much less natural than that of the Leather Children.”[ii] The machine itself was “composed of real Bones, mounted and covered with artificial Ligaments, Muscles and Cuticle […] and the Contents of the Abdomen are imitated with great Exactness.[iii] Similar descriptions are to be found among advertisements, tucked into arguments of detractors, and in contemporary pamphlets. Perhaps more mysterious yet is the extended description provided by Dr. Peter Camper.
Tune in next week for Part II, where I explore some of the stranger aspects of Camper’s descriptions and discuss the machine’s even more mysterious disappearance!

About Brandy Schillace 

A medical humanist, literary scholar and writer of Gothic fiction, Dr. Brandy Schillace spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between medical history and literature. She is the Managing Editor, Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry and has worked as an assistant professor of literature. She also leads interdisciplinary conferences abroad for IDnet and spends a lot of her time in museums and medical libraries.

[i] Banks, Amanda Carson. Birth Chairs, Midwives, and medicine. (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1999): (xix).
[ii] Qtd. from Bonnie Blackwell, “Tristram Shandy and the Theatre of the Mechanical Mother,” ELH 68, no. 1 (2001): 81-133, 91.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Wilson, Making, 6.
[v] Johnstone, R.W. William Smellie, The Master of British Midwifery.Edinburgh: E. & S. (Livingstone LTD., 1952), 25.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Blackwell. Tristram, 94. The quote was recorded in Glaister and is from 1750.
[viii] Qtd. In Johnstone, William, 25.