Friday, August 17, 2007

The testes of our Grandsire Adam

I first learned this many years ago, but it's kind of one of those lessons you have to learn again and again as a writer: things that are interesting in themselves but mostly irrelevant to the main story detract from the book as a whole if they are left in. So: cut.

(The slogan for this kind of work: easy come, easy go...)

In any case, here's another bit that's going to have to go from the book (though I am tempted to include the references as one long footnote, since the book titles themselves are so irresistible...):
A high-profile confrontation between two London doctors in the 1710s and 1720s over the powers of the maternal imagination reveals some surprising aspects of contemporary accounts of resemblance between parents and children. Daniel Turner was a London surgeon best known for his treatment of venereal disease and other diseases of the skin, James Blondel a physician who practiced in London after emigrating from France. In 1714, Turner published a treatise on diseases of the skin that included a relatively uncontroversial chapter on the power of the maternal imagination to mark the skin of the fetus. Then, in 1726, a woman named Mary Toft claimed to have given birth to seventeen rabbits in Godalming, Surrey. She became a celebrity before being exposed as a fraud and thrown into Bridewell. Following this episode, James Blondel wrote a scathing critique of the idea that the mother’s imagination produced deformities in children, one which Turner understood as a personal attack. Turner accordingly responded with a passionate defense of the doctrine of the imagination in which he contrasted the supposed absurdity of that doctrine with what he felt to be the very real absurdity of the theory of preformation, which was coming to dominate scientific accounts of generation. Turner claims that his own credulity is not
half so great, in believing the Causes here assign’d, to be the real ones of the several Appearances, . . . as it would be, should I go about to persuade myself or others, that the curtail’d Hand [a pregnant woman took fright at the sight of an amputee and later gave birth to a child missing a hand], or the Similitudes before observ’d, were many thousand Years ago thus mutilated in Eve’s Ovarium, or the Animalcules . . . thus disorder’d at the same time by some Accident in the Testes of our Grandsire Adam.
In response, Blondel heaps scorn on Turner’s belief in the literal truth of the story of Jacob and Laban’s sheep and calls for what modern scientists might call reproducible results if the theory is to be accepted: “Let Dr. Turner endeavour by pilled Rods, Pictures, Frights, or otherwise, to have a Breed of Cattel different in Colour from the Males and Females they come from, or to change the Fleece of the Lambs in Utero as his Will and Pleasure, from Black into White, or from White into Black, then if he has any Success; then, (and not before) I will be ready to own him in the Right and my self in the wrong,” he writes.

It becomes clear over the course of the book that Blondel opposes any advancement of the theory of maternal imagination at the expense of the theory of preformation to which he subscribes. Blondel’s own beliefs incline more towards the ovist position (associated with Harvey), in which all parts of the fetus already exist in the egg before conception and in which the male semen is nothing more than a kind of manure for the ovum, than to the animalculist version associated with Leeuwenhoek. Both versions of preformation assume that the parts exist before conception, and that imagination accordingly cannot “obliterate the Lineaments of the Foetus, which were preexistent to Conception, and subsisting, even since the Creation of the World.” Blondel’s assertion of preformation could hardly be stronger: “there’s no Child born, but the Lineaments of its Body have been somewhere from the first Creation, and in that somewhere liable to many Vicissitudes. The Opinion, which is now generally received, is, that the somewhere was in a primitive Ovum, which had several Ovula involved one within another,” he writes, adding that there is not one fetus currently in existence “but has been successively in the Ovary of Two Hundred and Fifty Persons at least.” In this account, preformation represents a striking scientific advance, a theory that explodes the now outdated model of the mother’s imagination as chief engine of resemblance.
I am too lazy to find a way to reproduce the references, since footnotes won't paste in from Microsoft Word, but here are the lovely titles of the primary sources I drew on for these paragraphs (I am in love with the word "gleets"!)--listing them in chronological order like this tells its own comical story of irritable controversy and mutual thwarting!:

Daniel Turner, De Morbis Cutaneis. A Treatise of Diseases Incident to the Skin (London: R. Bonwicke et al., 1714).

[James Blondel], The Strength of Imagination in Pregnant Women Examin’d: And the Opinion that Marks and Deformities In Children arise from thence, Demonstrated to be a Vulgar Error (1726; London: J. Peele, 1727).

Daniel Turner, A Discourse Concerning Gleets. Their Cause and Cure. . . . To which is added, A Defence of the 12th Chapter of the first Part of a Treatise de Morbis Cutaneis, in respect to the Spots and Marks impress’d upon the Skin of the Foetus, by the Force of the Mother’s Fancy: Containing some Remarks upon a Discourse lately printed and entituled, The Strength of Imagination in pregnant Women examin’d, & c. Whereby it is made plain, notwithstanding all the Objections therein, that the said Imagination in the Pregnant Woman, is capable of maiming, and does often both mutilate and mark the Foetus, or that the same, as he insinuates, is not a vulgar Error (London: John Clarke, 1729).

James Augustus Blondel, The Power of the Mother’s Imagination over the Foetus Examin’d. In Answer to Dr. Daniel Turner’s Book, Intitled A Defence of the XXIIth Chapter of the First Part of a Treatise, De Morbis Cutaneis (London: John Brotherton, 1729).

Daniel Turner, The Force of the Mother’s Imagination upon her Foetus in Utero, Still farther considered: In the Way of a Reply to Dr. Blondel’s last Book (London: J. Walthoe et al., 1730).

(I like that "Still farther considered"!)

J. H. Mauclerc, The Power of Imagination in Pregnant Women discussed: With an Address to the Ladies, on the Occasion (London: J. Robinson, 1740).

John Henry Mauclerc, Dr. Blondel confuted: or, The Ladies vindicated, With Regard to the Power of Imagination in Pregnant Women (London: M. Cooper, 1747).

[Isaac Bellet], Lettres sur le pouvoir de l’imagination des femmes enceintes. Où l’on combat le préjugé qui attribue à l’imagination des Meres le pouvoir d’imprimer sur le Corps des Enfans renfermés dans leur sein la figure des objets qui les attrapées (Paris: Frères Guerin, 1745).

And so it goes...


  1. Things that are interesting in themselves but mostly irrelevant to the main story detract from the book as a whole if they are left in. So: cut.

    And that's exactly why those five chapters had to go.


  2. So the timing is off, this being more than two years after the original post and all, but I would just like to offer a thank you. I am currently writing a paper on this very issue and the sources you provided have helped me immensely. So, without further ado, thank you.