Communicating Reproduction

The Fall 2015 issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine is a special issue, “Communicating Reproduction,” that sets an agenda for a long-term vision in this field. Tackling topics from medieval fertility charms to home birth activism, the five essays give a rich sense of current research.

bhm.89.3_frontThe issue is edited and introduced by a group from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge: Nick Hopwood, Peter Murray Jones, Lauren Kassell, and Jim Secord. Hopwood and Jones participated in a Q&A about the issue.

JHUP: What’s the idea behind this special issue?

NH: Reproduction became very prominent and controversial in the 1970s. Especially since then, historians have contributed much excellent research to the debates. Topics have included childbirth, contraception and abortion, genetics and embryology, and population control. But, not unusually, these studies are too often fragmented between historical periods. The main frameworks, which were also set up in the 1970s, are showing their age. We need some long-term perspectives to draw together and revitalize the field.

PMJ: Communication is key because controlling reproduction and controlling communication about reproduction have always gone together. That very fact has meant that communication tends to be taken for granted. Taking it seriously means reconstructing the conditions for communication, and how it did or didn’t succeed. And this approach lends itself to thinking over the long term. People have asked some very similar questions for centuries, such as “What do male and female contribute?” and “How can we produce healthy children?” But the form of the questions and their audiences have changed dramatically. We’re interested in how that has mattered.

JHUP: How did you approach tackling such a long period of time?

NH: That’s been the biggest challenge. We’re involved in a Wellcome Trust-funded research programme, “Generation to Reproduction,” that goes from antiquity to the present day. Some of us worked together on an exhibition, Books and Babies, that covers the same timespan. So we’ve become used to pooling knowledge in an effort to see beyond our own period expertise. It was an obvious move to invite international colleagues with interests in this approach to join us for the conference that led to the special issue.

PMJ: The issue showcases work from medieval Europe to the late twentieth-century United States. My own article with Lea Olsan shows how medieval men as well as women were involved in rituals for conception and childbirth. Jennifer Richards reconstructs how women read, wrote about, and critiqued one of the most popular midwifery books in early modern England. Alicia Puglionesi investigates how sellers of books on sex and contraception in late nineteenth-century America evaded the Comstock Laws. Solveig Jülich provides insight into the making of the best-selling advice book, A Child Is Born, at a key moment in the history of medicine and the media. Her article reproduces some striking photographs that place Lennart Nilsson’s fetal photographs in context. We put one on the cover. And Wendy Kline explores the relations between countercultural print and the home birth movement in the 1970s.

JHUP: How do the articles work off each other—are there linking themes?

NH: The issue brings these various topics into dialogue through a common concern with technology. The relations between the introduction of new communication technologies and changes in reproduction have been more complex and subtle than is usually realized. This applies to the shift from an older, broader framework of generation to the modern reproduction in the decades around 1800. It also helps us appreciate the paradox that the rise of mass communication did not make everything the same, but rendered meanings even more contested and unstable than before.

PMJ: Our introduction picks out three more specific themes. From the Bible to Brave New World, stories have helped people make sense of the complexities of generation and reproduction. There are also important issues of expertise: who could say what and on what authority? And since knowledge in these areas was often passed over in silence or kept secret, we need to consider relations between knowledge and ignorance. This matters, because communicating reproduction is a story of gaps, misunderstandings, and misreadings—even, perhaps especially, in the seemingly homogenized world of the digital media today.

JHUP: What do you hope happens from here?

NH: Great work has been coming out regularly and there’s more in the pipeline. For example, here in Cambridge, Jesse Olszynko-Gryn, Caitjan Gainty, and Patrick Ellis recently organized an exciting conference on “Reproduction on Film.” But ironically, even those of us who study communication would benefit from communicating more broadly among ourselves. We’d like to think that this special issue will assist colleagues in placing studies of particular periods, media, and genres within longer and broader histories. This will add depth and multiply points of comparison, while opening up the conversation—among historians and other scholars, and hopefully with practitioners too.