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Birth Anomaly and Childhood Disability

David Turner Orcid Logo

The Secrets of Generation: Reproduction in the Long Eighteenth Century, Pages: 217 - 237

Swansea University Author: David Turner Orcid Logo

Abstract

The aim of this chapter is to provide an overview of current scholarship concerning birth deformity in the eighteenth century and to provide some fresh perspectives. Congenital birth defects have been of considerable interest to scholars working in a variety of disciplines, including history of medi...

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Published in: The Secrets of Generation: Reproduction in the Long Eighteenth Century
Published: Toronto University of Toronto Press 2015
URI: https://cronfa.swan.ac.uk/Record/cronfa27989
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Abstract: The aim of this chapter is to provide an overview of current scholarship concerning birth deformity in the eighteenth century and to provide some fresh perspectives. Congenital birth defects have been of considerable interest to scholars working in a variety of disciplines, including history of medicine, literature and disability studies. The long eighteenth century is often viewed as a period of transition in which ‘religious’ interpretations of ‘monstrous’ births, where deformity was seen as a punishment for sin, were gradually supplanted by more ‘rational’, ‘scientific’ or ‘medical’ interpretations based on firmer anatomical principles. This eventually led to the development of the science of teratology in the nineteenth century. Scholars have also explored the place of maternal imagination in theories of birth anomaly, tracing the growing scepticism in learned circles about the power of mothers to influence foetal development or cause harm. Bound up in these changes were a broader set of issues including the increasing ‘passivity’ of women in the reproductive process, professionalization and medical authority, and the growing gap between elite and popular cultures of sexual knowledge.Such issues inform our understanding of generation in the eighteenth century, yet the subject is a complex one that defies straightforward generalisation. As A. W. Bates has argued in his recent work on monstrous births in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ‘religious’ interpretations of monstrosity co-existed with natural philosophical ones and the two might indeed reinforce each other. Focussing on congenital birth defect may also deflect attention away from the ways in which health conditions that developed in infancy and childhood, such as rickets, were ascribed to qualities inherited from parents and behaviour during pregnancy. Although the view that birth defects and childhood disabilities were punishments for sin became less popular during the eighteenth century, parental blame did not disappear. In fact, growing interest in heredity, stimulated by experimentation in animal breeding, focussed attention on the ways in which certain deformities or disabilities might be passed down through the generations which led to calls for the reproductive capacity of certain sectors of the population to be more strictly policed. Such discussions provide a precursor for the eugenics movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and are still relevant to modern ante-natal screening and attempts to regulate the behaviour of pregnant women.This chapter begins by reappraising the historiography of deformed births in the early modern period. Focussing primarily on England, it goes on the explore the various causes of birth anomaly found in a variety of eighteenth century texts, including books on ‘generation’, medical monographs, periodicals and prints. Alongside familiar themes such as the maternal imagination, the chapter will draw attention to the ways in which a diverse range of factors including astrology, emotion, humours and the environment were used to explain deformed births. The chapter will also consider the impact of eighteenth-century theories of heredity in discussions of birth defects and childhood disabilities, and look at ways in which some writers used them to call into question the acceptability of allowing people with certain disabilities, health conditions or ‘deformities’ to reproduce. This will lead to a discussion of parental responsibility. Although during the eighteenth century the language of ‘sin’ became less prominent in discussions of generation, parental immorality and ‘lifestyle’ remained a feature of discussions of birth defects and childhood disabilities through the period and provides a context for reappraising change and continuity in theories of reproduction over the course of the eighteenth century and beyond.
Keywords: Disability; childhood; anomaly
College: Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
Start Page: 217
End Page: 237