The Experimental Conception Hospital

Imagine a dark Gothic building, with walls a hundred foot high. Inside are one hundred female experimental test subjects, ranging in age from fourteen to forty five. The staff over-seeing this curious institution are recruited from monasteries and relied on to keep accurate scientific data. No men are allowed into this hospital, part from male midwives of scrupulous integrity. Their visits are part of  a clinical research trial, to discover the exact length of human gestation, and from when and what to date pregnancy.

This is the bizarre science-fictional building imagined by Robert Lyall, who was a nineteenth-century physician, botanist and traveller, in response to the confusing medical evidence presented in the Gardner peerage dispute heard in the House of Lords 1825-6.

This story testifies to how difficult it sometimes was for historical physicians, let alone lay people, to diagnose pregnancy reliably and early. The medical evidence gives us all sorts of information about how pregnancy was dated at the beginning of the nineteenth century, showing that there was little agreement between practitioners about the best way to do it. Just like today, people in the early nineteenth century understood themselves to be living through a hypermodern age, when all sorts of strides were being made in technology and science: for example, in steam power, electricity, and air flight. And yet, for all this progress, it still wasn’t possible to get a fix on the reproductive body, which was so familiar and close to hand. It felt anachronistic, Robert Lyall tells us in his eccentric commentary on the Gardner case.

We might reflect on a similar feeling of anachronism that people, and particularly women today encounter in the two week wait, in the time after embryo transfer or ovulation and before a pregnancy test is reliable. Just as women search their bodies for pregnancy signs and symptoms, Robert Lyall speculates on whether conception would feel like ‘the sting of a wasp, or like the bite of some other insects’. But, in the time before it’s possible to test, women today are in the same position as those in the past who didn’t have the test at all.

Read more about the Experimental Conception Hospital in a free open access article at The Social History of Medicine here.

Watch a short video made by Anna Burel, which sets Robert Lyall’s words to images, and evokes the hospital’s inmates.

Featured image:

Anna Burel, 99, 76, 12, 93, 7, 22/100 (2016).

Bearing Different Risks – exhibition

i have been really pleased to take part in the AHRC-funded network, Risks in Childbirth in Historical perspective, which is led by Adrian Wilson and Tania McIntosh. This is a collaboration between historians and midwives.  This has fostered some cross-disciplinary conversations and really asked: what can history do today? How can it change and influence current debates.

I have enjoyed finding out more from this network about historical midwifery,  childbirth and pregnancy. My part has to be interject the thought about the risks of not giving birth, which are often not the focus of historical inquiry. Listening to others in this group considering the historical management of birth risk, has forced me to reflect on the more often psychological, social and perhaps insidious risks posed by un-pregnancy.

That project is now hosting a new exhibition which opens at the Thackray Museum, in Leeds on 15th June, and will eventually tour to London and Brighton. It’s great to see this on-going conversation coming to fruition.

Featured image: Eucharius Rösslin, De partu hominis, et quae circa ipsum accidunt (1532).