In 1704, Czar Peter the Great issued an order forbidding midwives, surgeons, or mothers from killing or burying infants born with congenital abnormalities. Instead, these “monstrous” bodies were to be sent to Peter’s museum to be collected, anatomized, and studied. Along with the bodies, Peter collected information about the mother and her pregnancy: was she healthy? Injured? Frightened? Were other children in the village similarly deformed? 150 years later, the Dutch anatomist Willem Vrolik published a catalog of his museum, which contained 500 preparations of “monstrous births.” In the catalog, Willem— like Peter— included information about the mother and her pregnancy alongside individual cases. Though separated by a century and a half, the two men collected these bodies and information in pursuit of shared a scientific question: what caused a child to be born monstrous?
In the period separating Peter and Willem, scientific beliefs about gestation changed dramatically with monstrous births acting as crucial “test cases” for competing embryological theories. This paper examines how maternal testimony was used in scientific arguments about the cause and the significance of bodily abnormality. Was the mother to blame for her monstrous child? Was her account of her pregnancy reliable? Could her imagination influence the child’s body or was the body’s form shaped by other means? Examining maternal testimony alongside embryological theory highlights how moral and social meanings are written into the body even when it has just been born.
By sheer weight of numbers. Ideas about man and health in the practice of insurance medicine for modern life insurance companies 1880-1920
By Amber Striekwold (student Research Master History, Utrecht University)
How to determine if someone is healthy? And what is the probability of that person staying healthy? These questions were on the minds of life insurance medical directors at the end of the nineteenth century, when the discipline of insurance medicine was taking form. To make an ‘objective’ and accurate ‘risk-assessment’ about the life of an applicant, different medical techniques were developed and used like urine-analysis, and height- and weight tables based on statistical knowledge. Using corpulence as a case-study, it is found that the height- and weight tables used to make risk-assessments are neither neutral, nor objective. Health is not a pre-discursive entity, it is –to a certain extent – produced within social, cultural and medical practices. The standards for healthy weight produced by insurance medicine became general guidelines for society and determine what we currently perceive to be a healthy body.