Books & Babies: Communicating Reproduction


Fertility figure
Female plaque figurine holding breasts
Syria, 700–500 BC

Since prehistoric times people have used material objects to communicate with gods and each other about generation and reproduction. This small clay figurine of a woman holding her breasts is from the ancient Near East. It might have been used to aid fertility or childbirth or may simply have represented maternity or fertility.

Fitzwilliam Museum, ANE.52.1913


ClearBlue Plus home pregnancy test kit

This contemporary kit promises users ‘7 signs of certainty’. The packet instructs a woman how to test her urine; a thin blue line indicates pregnancy. It is only in the last century that reproduction has become a technological experience for many. Though laboratory pregnancy tests date from the late 1920s, home kits did not go on sale until the 1970s. They work by detecting the hormone human chorionic gonadotrophin. In previous centuries, if not millennia, pregnancy was determined and declared by the mother-to-be when she ‘quickened’, or felt the baby move in her womb, usually in the fourth or fifth month.

Widely available in shops in Britain in 2011


Mick Manning and Brita Granström
How Did I Begin?
London: Franklin Watts, 1997

Books that taught children about the human body were first produced in the nineteenth century, as schools began to teach ‘physiology’, a blend of biology and hygiene. Books about human reproduction for youngsters were not widely available until the mid-twentieth century, and the subject was not included in the curriculum until the 1960s. Like others of its type, this short book for young children assumes that they are innately curious about reproductive processes and uses bright colours and cartoon graphics to make pregnancy and the potential arrival of a sibling feel familiar and unthreatening.



Letter from Charles Darwin to John Henslow
17 January [1850]

In 1850 Charles Darwin wrote to his Cambridge mentor, the botanist John Stevens Henslow, to announce the birth of Leonard, his fourth son, and his use of chloroform in childbirth:

‘My said wife has been occupied these two days past in producing a fourth boy Darwin & seventh child! He is to be called Leonard, — a name I hold in affection from Cambridge & other associations. I was so bold during my wife’s confinement which are always rapid, as to administer Chloroform, before the Dr. came & I kept her in a state of insensibility of 1 & ½ hours & she knew nothing from first pain till she heard that the child was born. — It is the grandest & most blessed of discoveries.’

Darwin was an early adopter of obstetric anesthesia. The Edinburgh professor of midwifery, James Young Simpson, had discovered the properties of chloroform in 1847, but its employment in childbirth was controversial at first. Queen Victoria’s use in 1853 promoted general acceptance.

MS DAR. 93: A97



William Hunter (1718–1783)
The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, Exhibited in Figures
Birmingham: John Baskerville, 1774

Hunter was one of London’s first man-midwives, a surgeon who managed routine deliveries, building a very successful practice in aristocratic circles. As well as learning to attend childbirth, hundreds of medical men heard his lectures and dissected cadavers at his anatomy school. This lavishly-produced volume claims to unveil the mysteries of generation by offering the viewer a vicarious, even prurient, experience of dissection, suggesting that to see is to know. The engraver Jan van Rysmdyk underlines the individuality of these particular bodies by including details such as pubic hairs and a tiny fingernail, but also depicts the mother’s body with great violence, severing limbs to highlight the position of the fetus. Such a book was not designed for midwives but rather proclaimed the powers of art and anatomy to reveal women’s secrets. Though powerful, even disturbing, in its violence, this plate also highlights the significance of maternity.

Path.aa.5, Plate VI



The Secrets of Women


‘The Knowing of Woman’s Kind in Childing’
England, fifteenth century

In the Middle Ages, male physicians assumed authority on gynaecological and obstetrical matters, building on classical textual foundations. These authors were writing in Latin for male readers, both doctors and scholars. Even when translated into vernacular languages, there is little evidence that such works were owned or used by women. This English manuscript is one of the rare exceptions. The writer explains that he has chosen to translate the text because literate women are more likely to read English than Latin. These readers can pass on information to illiterate women, so that they do not have to talk about their gynaecological problems with male practitioners.

MS Ii.6.33, part 2, ff. 30v–31r



‘Experimenta sterilitatis viri et mulieris’
England, fifteenth century

Methods to test fertility and sterility are of great importance to families trying to bear children or to apportion blame for a failure to conceive. The first method mentioned here involves burning aromatics beneath the woman to see if they come out through the mouth or nose — if so, she is able to conceive and the man may be at fault. These tests were written in Latin into a book whose main text consisted of medical remedies in English. Several male owners of the 1570s have inscribed their names and made further entries on blank leaves.

MS Ee.1.13, ff. 94v–95r


François Rabelais (c.1490–1553?)
Les Oeuvres de Me. Francois Rabelais, Docteur en Medecine…
Lyons: Jean Martin, ‘1558’ [after 1600]

Rabelais, a university-trained physician, edited a collection of texts in Greek by Hippocrates and Galen for medical students, as well as writing the romance of Gargantua and Pantagruel. He was therefore well placed to satirize learned theories of generation. Dr Rondibilis explains marital duties to Panurge, and here, following Plato rather than Galen, describes the role of the restless animal womb in determining women’s nature. Printing enabled Rabelais, writing in French, to reach a wide readership through many editions of his works.

Keynes E.3.17, pp. 134–135



Limestone statuette of Isis and Horus
Egypt, Ptolemaic Period, around 300–200 BC

The goddess Isis was associated with motherhood and fertility in Ancient Egypt. Following the murder and dismemberment of her brother and husband Osiris, at the hands of his brother Seth, Isis collected the body parts and impregnated herself with them. She gave birth to their son Horus, shown here as a child on his mother’s knee. The domestic setting in which this statuette was owned and used is not recorded, but Isis was as much renowned for her magical powers as for her authority over childbirth.

Bequeathed by Charles Ricketts (1886–1931)
and Charles H. Shannon (1863–1937)
Fitzwilliam Museum, E.59.1937



The Anatomy of Generation


Walther Hermann Ryff (d. 1548)
Omnium humani corporis partium descriptio seu ut vocant anatomia…
Strassburg: Balthasar Beck, 1541

The figure of generation shows the female reproductive organs in the opened abdomen of a woman posed against a classical monument. It is from an anatomical booklet made up of woodcut illustrations copied from earlier books under the supervision of Ryff, a prolific producer of texts intended for a broad range of readers. To the left is an inscription by Thomas Lorkyn, Regius Professor of Physic at Cambridge, describing his investigation in August 1566 of a fetus aborted at sixteen weeks. Stains on the page probably originated in the Lorkyn’s use of this book as a guide to his own public dissections.

Bequeathed by Thomas Lorkyn, 1591


Thomas Raynalde (fl. 1539–1552)
The Byrth of Mankind, otherwise named The Womans Boke…
London: T. Raynalde, 1552

Raynalde, self-described physician and printer, published a translation of Eucharius Roesslin’s midwifery manual in 1540, the first such text printed in English. In his 1545 prologue to women readers he claimed that the book was being read out loud at confinements ‘before the mydwife, and the rest of the wemen then beyng present’. The listeners were pleased ‘to here the booke red by sum other, or els (such as could) to read it them selfes’. The copperplate engravings — the first in England, but based ultimately on Andreas Vesalius’s De fabrica (1543) — show the internal organs of the male, and on the right a ‘matrix’ (womb), remarkably phallic in form.

Owned by Samuel Purchas (1577–1626), author of Purchas, his Pilgrimes
Peterborough G.4.36




William Harvey (1578–1657)
Exercitationes de generatione animalium: Quibus accedunt quaedam de partu: de membranis ac humoribus uteri: & de conceptione
London: Typis Du-Gardianis: Impensis Octaviani Pulleyn, 1651

William Harvey’s work on the generation of animals began with the idea of investigating the causes that make the adult animal possible. He examined closely the genital anatomy of deer in the royal park at Oxford, and (despite lack of visual evidence) argued that every living thing came from an egg somehow produced at conception. The frontispiece of his treatise on generation shows Zeus opening a bisected egg labelled Ex ovo omnia: ‘Everything from the egg’. This releases humans, other animals and plants and so drew on earlier representations of Pandora’s mythical box, from which all good and evil had flown out into the world. This copy was owned by Baldwin Hamey (1600–1676), physician, who added notes and verses.

Adv.c.33.1, frontispiece and title page



From Generation to Reproduction


Caspar Friedrich Wolff (1733–1794)
Theoria generationis
Halle: Typis et sumtu Jo. Christ. HendelI, 1774

One of the founding works of modern embryology, first published as a doctoral dissertation in 1759, Theoria generationis proposes a ‘theory of generation’ for plants and animals. Wolff rejects preformationism, the idea that the development of the embryo is merely an unfolding of structures already present. Instead he supports a new version of the doctrine of epigenesis, the view that the apparent increase in complexity is real. This plate shows chick embryos and their parts. By the time of this expanded and corrected edition, Wolff was anatomist at the Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg.

CCD.46.87, title page and table 2



Karl Ernst von Baer (1792–1876)
De ovi mammalium et hominis genesi: epistolam ad Academiam Imperialem Scientiarum Petropolitanam
Leipzig: Leopold Voss, 1827

This published letter, ‘On the Genesis of the Egg of Mammals and of Man’, reported the discovery of the mammalian egg. Earlier investigators had identified another structure, the Graafian follicle, as the egg, or claimed that the embryo formed by the coagulation of fluid in the womb. By the 1820s several microscopists were reporting eggs, but Karl Ernst von Baer established his as the definitive account, although he wrote in Latin rather than German. The copper engraving focuses on the dog, shown developing to an embryo of about three weeks (VII). We also see the human egg (XIII), and for comparison, those of other vertebrates and a crayfish.




George Spratt (c.1784–c.1840)
Obstetric Tables
London, 1838

This atlas, with its ‘pop-up’ hand-coloured plates, taught the basic techniques of the forceps, an instrument employed from the mid-1700s by male medical practitioners to demonstrate their superiority over female midwifery. The author, George Spratt, combined a career as a successful London obstetrician with a family business that produced lavishly illustrated medical and natural historical works.

VII.1.20(3), table VIII


Laurence Sterne (1713–1768)
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman…
York: printed by Ann Ward, 1759

In focusing on the birth of its central protagonist, Laurence Sterne’s extraordinary book mocks not only traditional memoirs and novels, but also the ambitions of contemporary theories of generation. At the moment of conception, Tristram Shandy’s mother asks if his father had remembered to wind the clock. The distraction disturbs the homunculus and leads to an unbalanced and eccentric character.




Brave New Worlds


Marie Carmichael Stopes (1880–1958)
Wise Parenthood: A Sequel to ‘Married Love’; A Book for Married People
London: A. C. Fifield, 1918

After the success of her ground-breaking Married Love, Marie Stopes received so many pleas for help that she produced a practical sequel the same year, with explicit instructions on contraceptive methods. She promoted the cervical cap, which had the advantage of being under the woman’s control. In working-class couples, however, the men tended to take responsibility for contraception, and many women did not find the device as easy to use as Stopes, who recommended inserting it ‘when dressing in the evening’.

S300.d.91.4, pp. 14–15


Karl Pearson (1857–1936), editor
Treasury of Human Inheritance
Volume 1, London: Dulau and Co., Ltd, 1912

Inspired and endowed by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who coined the term ‘eugenics’, or ‘noble in heredity’, in 1883, the Galton Laboratory at University College London led the way in British eugenics research. This Treasury, founded by Karl Pearson in 1909, compiled information about human inheritance, especially of disease: pedigrees and statistical analysis as well as history, clinical features and pathology. The frontispiece to this first volume memorializes the recently deceased Galton and in several ways looks back. But publication continued until 1958, in an occasional series of five volumes mostly written by the mathematician and doctor Julia Bell. Human geneticists still draw on her work.

S380:01.a.2.2, frontispiece and title page



National Council of Public Morals: National Birth-Rate Commission
The Declining Birth-Rate: Its Causes and Effects
London: Chapman and Hall, 1916

This prestigious, though unofficial, report confirmed that the birth-rate was declining and, along with the 1911 census, shaped what was already a lively newspaper debate. The first section, on statistical evidence, begins with two graphs that lay out the commentators’ cause for concern. The first shows the overall fall from 36.3 births per 1,000 at the peak in 1876 to about 23 per 1,000 in 1913. The second visualizes the finding that drove the eugenics movement: the rate had plummeted in middle- and upper-class Hampstead, while staying steady in working-class Shoreditch.

Lib.6.91.264, pp. 5–6



Illustration for ‘The Machine Man of Ardathia’ by ‘Francis Flagg’ (George Henry Weiss)
Amazing Stories: the Magazine of Scientifiction, volume 2, no. 8
New York, November 1927

Visions of biologically engineered reproduction flourished between the World Wars, especially among radical scientists, writers and artists. The most famous, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), was not the first. This cover of a cult science-fiction magazine illustrates a scene from ‘The Machine Man of Ardathia’. A modern American is visited from a distant future by an ‘Ardathian’, whose physiological functions have been taken over by artificial systems. The evolutionary link to humans are the Bi-Chanics, who have mechanical hearts and bring pregnancy to term in ‘ectogenetic incubators’.

Private collection



The Control of Life


Dr & Mrs J. C. Willke
How to Teach the Pro-Life Story
Cincinatti, Ohio: Hayes Publishing Co., Inc., third printing, 1978

In the early 1970s two Catholic educators in family values, the nurse Barbara Willke and her physician husband John, led campaigns against the liberalization of the anti-abortion laws. The Willkes developed visual tactics for the conservative ‘pro-life’ movement that owed much to the liberal social activism of the 1960s. Their manual taught activists to deploy the fetal images that Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson’s 1965 photo-essay in Life had helped to make prominent. The cover represents the mix of old media and new: a woman in a television studio holds a large photograph of a man’s hand with the ‘tiny human feet’ of a 10-week fetus.

Private collection


Richard Gliddon, editor
Revised Nuffield Biology: Text 4: The Perpetuation of Life
London: Longman Group Limited for the Nuffield Foundation, 1975

Major reforms of science curricula took place in the 1960s. In Britain the Nuffield Project brought human reproduction into schools more frankly than ever before. This book, in an edition revised after ten years of classroom evaluation, is one of a series that prepared pupils for ‘O-Level’ biology examinations, usually taken around the age of 16. The photographs from leading American researchers make the point that no postnatal change is as great or rapid as those before birth. The first chapter, on ‘Similarities and differences in living things’, asks pupils to examine the colour plates ‘from their own point of view and imagine how someone from another country would see them’.

1975.9.1905, pp. 116–117


The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective
Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book By and For Women
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973

This book played a major role in the feminist challenge to medicine, selling over four million copies and educating legions of active consumers. It began with dissatisfaction, expressed in a discussion group at a women’s conference in Boston in 1969, and grew through discussion, knowledge-sharing and consciousness-raising into a commercial publication. Twelve white, middle-class heterosexual women aged 24 to 40 took the lead, but they included other voices. Our Bodies, Ourselves stimulated lively debates on topics including the problems of defining women through reproduction. Published in the year of a landmark Supreme Court judgment, the chapter on abortion begins, ‘Abortion is our right — our right as women to control our bodies.’

9230.b.54, pp. 142–143



Cambridge University Students’ Union
Cambridge Survival Pack, 2004

Condoms, long used for birth control and as protection against venereal disease, were more widely employed after the AIDS epidemic began in the 1980s. As AIDS receded from the headlines, however, public health educators worried that people had become complacent. By 2004 CUSU was offering every student a Survival Guide with a section on sexual health and a safer sex pack part-funded by the University’s HIV and Sexual Health Working Group. This contains two condoms from the British company Pasante, one ‘for the natural feel’ and another ‘extra strong’, together with lubricant and an instruction leaflet.

Cambridge University Archives, STU 7



Researching Reproduction



Barbara Rankin (b. 1933)
Photograph album

This photograph album kept by Barbara Rankin, secretary to the physiologist Robert Edwards, includes images of Edwards and his assistant Jean Purdy with what are probably Rankin’s notes. These photographs emphasize the smallness of his Cambridge laboratory bench and office full of books, journals and papers. The notes were so important and vulnerable that the windows had to remain closed, lest the wind disturb the loose leaves.

Churchill Archives Centre, BARA 1 (facsimile)



Robert Edwards (b. 1925)
Notebook extracts

The sketches show pig oocytes (egg mother cells from which mature ova arise) that had been matured in vitro, transferred to a pig oviduct (fallopian tube), inseminated with spermatozoa, and later recovered and examined for evidence of fertilization. The experiments were carried out jointly by Robert Edwards and the late Christopher Polge of the Agricultural Research Council’s Animal Research Station on Huntingdon Road. Their collaboration illustrates the rich exchanges between laboratory, farm and clinic that made the reproductive sciences in Cambridge so dynamic. Edwards’ 1965 paper in Nature referred to this work, which was to provide an important model for the fertilization of human eggs that he and Steptoe announced in Nature in 1969.

Robert Edwards Papers
Churchill Archives Centre, EDWS Acc 1601 Box 3



Embryo culture chamber

Communication between the (medically untrained) Cambridge scientist Robert Edwards and the Oldham clinician Patrick Steptoe was crucial. This is the chamber within which human embryos were incubated in both Oldham and Cambridge in the 1960s and ‘70s. A standard laboratory desiccator is usually used to keep specimens in a vacuum by removing the air by suction through the stopcock valve at the top. Edwards and his colleague Jean Purdy converted this one into an embryo culture chamber by reversing this process and using the stopcock valve to perfuse the chamber with a special gas mixture suitable for in vitro culture. The chamber was then placed inside a 37 degree incubator to maintain the correct temperature for early embryo development during the next two days. Between 48 and 72 hours after mixing eggs and sperm, the early embryos were then loaded into a special catheter for transfer into the patient’s womb.

Courtesy of Bourn Hall Clinic, Cambridge



Neville Hodgkinson
The Battles — and the Breakthrough: How They Fought Nature and their Critics
Daily Mail
London, 27 July 1978

When news leaked out and reporters started to bother his patient Lesley Brown, the Oldham gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe brokered an exclusive deal with the Daily Mail. The paper, which especially targeted women readers, ran the story on the front page several times. Louise Brown was born near midnight on 25 July, but instead of a big splash the next morning, the Mail used its access to produce a five-page feature the following day. This gave sympathetic coverage to the Brown family, the prospects for infertility treatment and — after years of mixed press — Steptoe, Robert Edwards and the science of in vitro fertilization.



Roger Huyssen (b. 1946)
Illustration for ‘The First Test-Tube Baby’
Time (Atlantic edition), volume 112, no. 5
Amsterdam, 31 July 1978

The artist Roger Huyssen produced this cover for the influential American news magazine Time to mark the birth of Louise Brown. The visual reference is to Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. There, God’s fingers reach out to touch Adam’s directly; here, the other hand is presumably Edwards’s and they meet via a test-tube containing a fertilized egg. In reality, fertilization was achieved in a plastic Petri dish. Though critical to success, it was a small part of the overall process.

Private collection



Robert Edwards (b. 1925), Patrick Steptoe (1913–1988) and Jean Purdy (1945–1985)
‘Establishing full-term human pregnancies using cleaving embryos grown in vitro’: offprint from the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, volume 87, no.9, 737–756
September 1980

This full technical account of the science that produced Louise Brown was, somewhat controversially, only published over two years after her birth. A half-page notice appeared in the Lancet in 1978. This report was based on a lecture delivered to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists early in the following year. Robert Edwards and his colleagues eventually published much more on the technicalities, as clinics were founded and Edwards attempted to establish and communicate best practice. Patrick Steptoe and he opened Bourn Hall Clinic, near Cambridge, in 1980.

Robert Edwards Papers
Churchill Archives Centre, EDWS Acc 1643 Box 9



Aristotle’s Masterpiece


Levinus Lemnius (1505–1568)
The Secret Miracles of Nature…
London: Jo. Streater, 1658

Aristotle’s Masterpiece was assembled from two earlier texts. The Secret Miracles of Nature was a translation of De miraculis occultis naturae, in the expanded version first published at Antwerp in 1564. Lemnius’s learned volume attempted to reconcile Aristotelian natural philosophy with the tenets of Christianity. It explored a wide range of topics including generation, with a bias towards the occult and the extraordinary. In 1665, an anonymous writer excerpted all of the sections about sex and generation and published them in a small volume called A Discourse on Generation; the Masterpiece compiler probably used this smaller book.

K.14.29, title page



Jakob Rüff (1500–1588)
De conceptu et generatione hominis, et ijs quae circa h[a]ec potissimum consyderantur…
Zurich: C. Froschover, 1554; Latin translation by Wolfgang Haller of the first German edition published the same year

The other book used to make the Masterpiece was a midwifery manual written by a surgeon and published in Zurich in both German and Latin in 1554. Translated into English in 1637, it describes generation, the signs and progress of pregnancy, how to manage childbirth, and the care of the newborn in detail. The frontispiece shows an imagined scene of the birthing room. Many other midwifery manuals borrowed from Rüff without acknowledgement.

K.9.24, frontispiece and aa2


Aristotle’s Masterpiece was an almost instant publishing success, due probably to its unusual combination of sensational illustrations, a racy poem, and handy recipes for illnesses, as well as information typical of midwifery manuals. Publishers re-packaged the Masterpiece repeatedly, using different frontispieces and covers to emphasize the book’s offer of sexual knowledge or its promise of practical advice about maternity.


Aristotle’s Master-Piece: or The Secrets of Generation Display’d in all the Parts Thereof
London: printed for W.B., 1704

Keynes.A.1.7, frontispiece and title page


Editions of the Masterpiece published between the mid-eighteenth century and the early twentieth century
Aristotle’s Compleat Master Piece: in three parts: Displaying the Secrets of Nature in the Generation of Man, 23rd edition. [London?]: printed and sold by the booksellers, 1749, 7706.e.42; The Works of the Famous Philosopher: containing his Complete Master-Piece and Family Physician, his Experienced Midwife, his Book of Problems, and Remarks on Physiognomy. To the Original Work is Added, An Essay on Marriage; its Duties and Enjoyments, London: J. Smith, c.1850, Waddleton e.9.221 and Waddleton e.9.306; The Works of Aristotle: the Famous Philosopher: containing his Complete Masterpiece and Family Physician: his Experienced Midwife: his Book of Problems: and his Remarks on Physiognomy… with engravings, London: Clifton, Chambers & Co., c.1905, Waddleton e.9.8.


Aristotle’s Works: containing the Master-Piece, Directions for Midwives, and Counsel and Advice to Child-Bearing Women. With various useful remedies
London: published by the booksellers, c.1850

Private collection, frontispiece and title page



The Works of Aristotle, the Famous Philosopher, containing I. — His Complete Masterpiece. II. — His Experienced Midwife. III. — His Book of Problems. IV. — His Remarks on Physiognomy. V. — The Family Physician
[London?]: c.1930

Private collection



Francis Place (1771–1854)

Readers responded to the variety of editions of the Masterpiece in different ways. In fact their responses were as diverse as the forms in which the text itself was packaged and repackaged by publishers. Francis Place was a London tailor deeply committed to radical politics and reform in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His autobiography tells us that he read a borrowed copy of the Masterpiece while just a schoolboy. He also describes thumbing through anatomical and surgical texts on bookstalls, looking at the pictures until the stall owners shooed him away.

British Library, Add. MS 35142, f. 85 (facsimile)


The Works of the Famous Philosopher, containing his Complete Master-Piece, and Family Physician, his Experienced Midwife, his Book of Problems, and Remarks on Physiognomy. To the Original Work is added, An Essay on Marriage; its Duties and Enjoyments
London: printed for the booksellers [c.1860]

In late nineteenth-century London, Alphonsine Desirée Mahier wrote her name and address in her copy of the Masterpiece. Using census records, we can establish that she was born in Rouen, France, around 1858, and married Thomas Law, a Thames waterman, when she was twenty. By the time she wrote her name here, she was in her thirties and childless. Perhaps she hoped the book would offer her some useful information on becoming a mother, but census records do not suggest that she ever had children.

From the Institute of the History of Medicine,
The Johns Hopkins University
JHU CAGE B458.A75 1860 (facsimile)


James Joyce (1882–1941)
Paris: Shakespeare and Company, 1922

Like many of the book’s real readers, Joyce’s Leopold Bloom looks at a copy of the Masterpiece on a bookstall. He describes the book’s ‘chromolithographs’ as cataloguing all kinds of monstrosity, from supernumerary digits to swine-headed babies. In actual fact, neither form of monstrosity is pictured in the work! Molly Bloom, however, already has her own copy, which she calls Aristocrats Masterpiece, perhaps playing on the book’s discussions of the resemblance of parents and children, and implicitly, upon issues of lineage and kin.



Stan Dickens
Bending the Twig
Ilfracombe: Stockwell, 1975

Stan Dickens grew up in a coal-mining community, reading boys’ magazines such as the Magnet and the Gem. He combed bookstalls looking for second-hand books of interest. One canny stallholder showed one of Dickens’s friends a single image from the Masterpiece and promised him that the book included many more of the same kind. Six boys clubbed together to purchase the book jointly, and Dickens tells us that for the first time they had insight into a phrase they had heard in church services. The phrase was ‘the mother’s womb’.

Private collection


Mary Bertenshaw
Sunrise to Sunset
Manchester: Printwise Publications, 1991

Mary Bertenshaw first encountered the Masterpiece when working in a cap and hat factory as a girl in 1920s Manchester. She and her workmates pored over the book at lunchtime in fits of giggles until their boss caught them, much to their shame. Afterwards, they ‘felt dubious’ about men and assiduously avoided walking near the local venereal disease clinic. However, when Mary’s mother became pregnant a year later, Mary visualized the growing fetus inside her mother’s body from what she remembered of the Masterpiece illustrations.

Private collection


The Ascent of Man


Robert Chambers (1802–1871)
Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
London: John Churchill, 1844

This book, published anonymously, brought the developmental history of the cosmos to the centre of public debate in Britain and America, fifteen years before the Origin of Species. As shown in this diagram, species emerge through a process of embryonic advance and divergence. The development of a new species is no miracle, but as natural and unthreatening an event as a mother’s pregnancy.

Ant.c.48.290, pp. 212–213


Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802)
The Botanic Garden, Part I, The Economy of Vegetation
London, J. Johnson, 1791

Based on a sketch by Henry Fuseli, this copper engraving by William Blake illustrates the ‘Dog of Nile’, Anubis, barking at the six-pointed dog-star Sirius. The star’s arrival signalled the annual floods that would ensure the fertility of Egypt. The plate appeared in a fashionable erotic poem by the physician and botanist Erasmus Darwin, who envisioned all nature in gestation and transformation.

CCB.47.29, plate facing p. 127


Charles Darwin (1809–1882)
Tree of primate evolution
21 April 1868

Charles Darwin transformed the terms of the evolutionary debate, partly by avoiding the wide-ranging cosmic speculation that had characterized Vestiges and the writings of his grandfather Erasmus. Darwin rarely published explicit genealogies, but this sketch of primate origins shows that he was willing to use such images in private to work out his ideas. His attitudes towards developmental progress remained ambivalent: humans do not occupy a special position in the evolutionary scheme.

MS DAR. 80: B91r


Patrick Matthew (1790–1874)
Letter to Charles Darwin
Errol, 3 December 1862

Does evolution imply ascending progress? The question was hotly debated in the wake of the Origin of Species. In this letter to Darwin, the agricultural writer Patrick Matthew explores differences in their aims:

‘My line lies more in the political & social, Your’s in tracing out the admirably balanced scheme of Nature all linked together in dependant connection — the vital endowed with a variation-power in accommodation to material change. … We may be satisfied that we have lived in the great age of discovery & in the country & of the Race in which & by whom these discoveries have been made. Man cannot advance much higher. A reaction such as attended Babylonian, Egyptian, Grecian & Roman civilizations must soon ensue. The same powers that have reached high civilization cannot support it. Fall we must.’

MS DAR 171: 91


Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999), producer and director
2001: A Space Odyssey
DVD distributed by Warner Home Video, 2008

The continuing popularity of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 filmindicates that universal gestation still serves as a powerful way of understanding the place of humans in universe. Tracing evolution from the development of weapons by early hominoids to the first flight to Jupiter, the film ends with the mission’s sole survivor rapidly aging and then returning as a fetus. The DVD cover draws on Lennart Nilsson’s celebrated fetal photographs of 1965 in Life magazine to show the embryonic star-child floating in space, as large as a planet.

Private collection


Henry R. Knipe (1855–1918)
Nebula to Man
London: J. M. Dent, 1905

The flourishing of a broadly defined ‘Darwinism’ around 1900 led to a huge range of publications outlining evolutionary views of progress. This remarkable epic is written in the same verse form as Erasmus Darwin’s poems a century earlier, using the evidence of contemporary science. The publisher, J. M. Dent, had begun planning the ‘Everyman’ series the previous year: here the archetypal couple wear animal skins, but their destiny is tied to the stars.

Ver.4.90.9, frontispiece and title page


William K. Gregory (1876–1970)
Our Face from Fish to Man: A Portrait Gallery of our Ancient Ancestors and Kinsfolk Together with a Consise History of our Best Features
New York, London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1929

Written in the aftermath of legislation outlawing the teaching of evolution in some American states, this book exploits the fascination of transatlantic readers with their own faces to draw them into a sophisticated account of the development of the vertebrate head. The author, a leading naturalist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, ends by speculating on what the face of the white race will look like in a million years if attempts at eugenic purification are successful.

380.c.92.36, frontispiece and title page


Jacob Bronowski (1908–1974)
The Ascent of Man
London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1973

Appearing on BBC television and as a hugely successful book, Jacob Bronowski’s landmark series conveyed a highly personal vision of the evolutionary epic. Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings are used to express the union between art and science at the heart of human creativity. The flexibility of mind that makes civilization possible begins both in the long history of evolution and in the womb.

L415:8.c.1.10500, pp. 40–41



Extraordinary Births


England, early thirteenth century

This illustrated medieval bestiary contains moralized descriptions of animals accompanied by their portraits. The weasel (mustela) is shown at the right below the cat and the mouse. The text remarks: ‘Some say that weasels conceive through the ear and give birth through the mouth; others say, on the contrary, that they conceive through the mouth and give birth through the ear’. In medieval illuminations showing the fully-formed baby Jesus descending from heaven to the Virgin Mary, he comes not to her womb, but to her ear. The weasel is emblematic of this conception through the ear, which also signified that ‘faith comes from hearing’ (Romans, 10:17).

Donated by Osbert Fowler, King’s College, 1655
MS Ii.4.26, ff. 27v–28r


Pierre Boaistuau (d. 1566)
Certaine Secrete Wonders of Nature: containing a Description of Sundry Strange Things, Seming Monstrous in our Eyes and Judgement, Bicause we are not Privie to the Reasons of Them
London: By Henry Bynneman dwelling in Knightrider Streat, at the Signe of the Mermaid, 1569

Boaistuau travelled to England to present his Histoires Prodigieuses to Queen Elizabeth in 1559, and it was later translated out of French by Edward Fenton. The work contains a collection of extraordinary stories of monstrous births, demons, sea-monsters, serpents, creatures half-man and half-animal, precious stones, floods, comets, earthquakes and other natural phenomena. Such ‘wonder books’ were enjoyed by contemporary readers, and went through many editions in print. Here we see conjoined twin girls born in Verona in 1475. Boaistuau describes this prodigious spectacle as a portent of extraordinary events in Europe that same year.

Syn.7.56.32, pp. 123–124


Martin Luther (1483–1546) and Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560)
Deuttung der Czwo Grewlichen Figuren, Bapstesels czu Rom und Munchkalbs zu Freijberg ijnn Meijsszen Funden
Wittenberg: Johann Rhau-Grunenberg, 1523

In this influential Protestant pamphlet, Melanchthon explained that the ‘Pope-ass’, a monstrous being reportedly found dead in the Tiber in 1496, referred to the multiple and monstrous corruptions of the Roman papacy. The artist Lucas Cranach underscored this interpretation by showing the Pope’s Castel Sant’Angelo in the background. The ‘monk-calf’ was a calf born in Freiberg in Saxony with a mantle of skin resembling a cowl, which Luther interpreted as a sign that the monastic state was ‘nothing other than a false and lying appearance and outward display of a holy, godly life.’ Monstrous births were made powerful instruments of religious propaganda in words and pictures.

Owned by Karl Pearson (1857–1936), author of works on eugenics
F152.d.1.30, Aiv–Aiir


Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1805–1861)
Histoire Générale et Particulière des Anomalies de l’Organisation chez l’Homme et les Animaux: Ouvrage Comprenant des Recherches sur les Caractères, la Classification, l’Influence Physiologique et Pathologique, les Rapports Généraux, les Lois et les Causes des Monstruosités, des Variétés et Vices de Conformation, ou Traité de Tératologie
Paris, London: J.-B. Baillière, 1832–1837, volume 4, Atlas

Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire invented the term teratology to describe the science of anomalies in anatomical organisation. He tried to establish a natural classification for these anomalies based on their complexity and severity. Like his father Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire he saw all malformations as results of deviation from the normal process of embryonic development. These deviations, he argued, belonged to the natural realm, not the supernatural.

XI.4.33, figs 1–3



Nathanael Saint André (1680–1776)
A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets in the Year 1726, Perform’d by Mr John Howard Surgeon at Guilford
London: Published by Mr St. Andre Surgeon and Anatomist to his Majesty, [1727?]

This is one of several pamphlets published about the case of Mary Toft (1701?–1763), who was supposed to have given birth to multiple rabbits in 1726, a story believed by many, including one of George I’s surgeons. She was brought to London and examined by many doctors, but ultimately confessed to fraud. The pamphlet is bound with another, by Sir Richard Manningham FRS, which denounces the deception. Both were extracted from a volume of tracts by the original owner and bound in marbled paper. The case caused a sensation in coffee houses and newspapers. The credulity of some of the élite male midwives who attended Mary Toft was the subject of much contemporary mockery, including a satirical print by William Hogarth.

Syn.8.72.6, title page v and Q2



Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803–1873)
The Siamese Twins. A Satirical Tale of the Times. With Other Poems
London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1831

In November 1830, Chang and Eng Bunker (1811–1874) arrived in London and became an immediate sensation. They had been born in Siam, conjoined twins who shared a band of flesh, cartilage, and liver tissue. When they arrived in London, leading medical men including Sir Astley Cooper examined them and declared that they could not be separated surgically. The brothers returned to America, toured with P.T. Barnum and eventually settled down, marrying two sisters and fathering 22 children. Edward Bulwer Lytton made the brothers into fictional characters in a lengthy 1831 poem satirizing political issues. Here a crowd protests as the bailiffs try to arrest one brother for debt while the other is aggressively recruited to the armed services. Bulwer-Lytton plays with the idea of the double, making his fictional brothers very different moral characters. An automated wax-work in which the brothers fought each other was also popular.

Y.17.29, p. 199 and plate opposite



Richard Pendlebury
‘How the Heartwarming Tale of the U.S. Octuplets Became a Seedy Story of Self-Indulgence’
Daily Mail
London, 2 February 2009

The media christened Nadya Suleman ‘Octomom’ when she gave birth to only the second full set of octuplets in American history and — a world record — all eight babies survived for more than a week. But coverage became negative as soon as the press found out that the unemployed single mother already had six young children, was on benefits, and had conceived all her offspring by in vitro fertilization. Among other things, the case thus continued the controversy that certain fertility specialists had courted in the 1990s, for example by helping post-menopausal women give birth and a black woman to have a white child. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine expelled Suleman’s doctor for violating its standards, including by implanting 12 embryos at once when the guidelines recommended a maximum of two.




Population Arithmetick


Albert Ruskin Cook (1870–1951)
A Doctor and his Dog in Uganda
London: Religious Tracts Society, 1903

Cook joined the Church Missionary Society in 1895 and was sent as a medical missionary to Uganda, then a British protectorate. Campaigning for funds back at home, he urged the necessity of training Ugandan nurses as midwives in order to reduce birth-related fatalities, and led a health campaign against venereal disease to improve the birth rate and the ‘breeding stock’ of the native population. Improving maternal health, he argued, was vital to Britain’s role as an imperial power as well as a moral duty. Cook’s wife Katherine edited his journals to appeal to readers eager for lively stories of missionary medicine. She later took charge of maternity services at Mengo, near Kampala.

RCS.A.45.12, p. 148 and plate opposite


Aldous Huxley (1894–1963)
Brave New World
Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books in association with Chatto and Windus, 1955

Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931, at a time of economic collapse and political inertia. In his dystopian vision the future World State runs on (Henry) Fordian principles. A Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning manages reproduction through the breeding of babies in bottles. They are biologically engineered to fulfil predestined social roles, from Alphas to Epsilons. Sex has become a compulsory recreation, and if a woman slips up on her ‘Malthusian drill’ there is a lovely pink-glass Abortion Centre. By the time of the Penguin edition in 1955 the book had attained classic status as a warning of things to come.



Paul R. Ehrlich (b. 1932)
The Population Bomb
London: Ballantine Books, 1971

Though some were already lobbying for ‘population control’ in the 1950s and 1960s, The Population Bomb played a crucial role in broadening the debate. Writtenby the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich with his wife Anne Ehrlich and the encouragement of the environmentalist Sierra Club, the book predicted mass starvation and advocated immediate action to limit population growth. It proposed incentives to family limitation in the United States and compulsory sterilization programmes in India and elsewhere. The title, borrowed from a pamphlet of 1954 at the publisher’s suggestion, was a perfect marketing tool for a paperback that sold two million copies. It was published in Britain in association with Friends of the Earth.



Miroslav Macura, Alphonse L. MacDonald and Werner Haug (editors)
The New Demographic Regime: Population Challenges and Policy Responses
New York, Geneva: United Nations, 2005

The European Population Forum met in Geneva in 2004, fifty years after the first World Population Conference in Rome. This report contains the keynote and background papers to the Geneva meeting. The agenda focused on the decline of fertility in Europe to sub-replacement levels, the consequent ageing of the population, and the need for immigrants to replace lost members of the workforce. Reports of this type published under the aegis of the United Nations and other international agencies seek to provide a framework for governmental policies on population issues.



William Petty (1623–1687)
Political Arithmetick, or A Discourse Concerning, the Extent and Value of Lands, People, Buildings: Husbandry, Manufacture, Commerce, Fishery, Artizans, Seamen, Soldiers; Publick Revenues, Interest, Taxes, Superlucration, Registries, Banks; Valuation of Men, Increasing of Seamen, of Militia’s Harbours, Situation, Shipping, Power at Sea, &c
London: printed for Robert Clavel, and Hen. Mortlock, 1690

Petty’s medical skills won him the appointment of physician to the army in Ireland in 1652. He devised a plan for surveying the lands forfeited by the defeated Irish rebels and of allotting them to their new owners among the English soldiery and investors. The ‘Down Survey’ was carried out largely by unemployed soldiers and provided much of the data for his statistical analysis of population and employment in the posthumously published Political Arithmetick. He urged the importance of estimating the size of populations as an instrument of political economy in the hands of government.

Hib.8.690.4, pp. 104–105


Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834)
An Essay on the Principle of Population: or, A View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness: with an Inquiry into our Prospects respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils which it Occasions
London: J. Murray, 1826

Malthus’s book on population, first published in 1798, argued that advocates of human progress were overlooking the tendency of populations to increase more rapidly than their food supplies. Consequently, population is kept in balance with the food supply by various ‘checks’. These Malthus classified as either ‘vice’ or ‘misery’, and included wars, famines, plagues, delayed marriages (later called ‘prudential restraint’), prostitution (‘vicious customs with respect to women’), and contraception (‘unnatural’ practices). Charles Darwin was much impressed with Malthusian ideas about the way environment constrains populations. His annotated copy shows how closely he read Malthus.

Copy signed by Charles Darwin, April 1841
DAR. LIB, pp. 498–499



Cesare Lombroso
L’Uomo Delinquente…
Turin: Fratelli Bocca Editori, volume 2, 1889

Lombroso, an Italian physician, was the first to envisage criminal anthropology as a scientific discipline. In December 1870 he examined the skull of the famous brigand Vihella, and saw in a flash ‘an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals’. Lombroso became convinced that the ‘born criminal’ could be anatomically identified by degenerative features. In the fourth edition of his textbook he used a montage of photographs to prove his point. He shows the jug ears, enlarged sinuses, large jaws and cheekbones, sullen or crossed eyes and thin upper lips which, he argued, distinguish 44% of insane criminals who embody the full criminal and atavistic type.

8000.c.97, tables 5 and 6


Ernst Rüdin (1874–1952), Arthur Gütt (1891–1949) and Falk Ruttke (1894–1955)
Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses vom 14 Juli 1933
Munich: J. F. Lehmann, 1934

The Nazi ‘Sterilization Law’ was enacted in Germany on 14 July 1933 (and made active in January 1934). It was modelled on a draft Prussian law of 1932, but added the element of compulsion that also characterized American legislation. The Nazi statute allowed the compulsory sterilization of any citizen who in the opinion of a ‘Genetic Health Court’ suffered from one of a list of alleged genetic disorders. This elaborate interpretive commentary is by three leading racial hygienists: Ernst Rüdin, Arthur Gütt (both doctors) and the lawyer Falk Ruttke. By the end of the Nazi regime, over 200 ‘Genetic Health Courts’ had mandated the forced sterilization of over 400,000 people.

CCA.26:3.5, pp. 40–41


Zero Population Growth
Sagittarius Productions Inc., 1972 (DVD 2008)

The film is a dystopian vision of the future. Under the pressure of overpopulation, human society begins to self-destruct. A policy of Zero Population Growth is forced upon citizens in hopes that twenty years without any births will save the planet. Couples are issued dolls to take the place of children, and neighbours denounce illicit childbirth. A couple decide to subvert the will of the government by having a child. Once restricted to cinemas, the advent of video, DVD and YouTube has made old films accessible as never before.

Private collection

[an error occurred while processing this directive]