11 May 2010 5:00pm - 6:30pm CRASSH, 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge


Bridget Gurtler (History, Rutgers University, US) 


In the late 1940s and the 1950s in the U.S. and UK, physicians, patients, and scientists formed interrelated and sometimes competing narratives about artificial insemination (AI).  At this critical moment during which many of the modern boundaries and definitions of assisted reproduction were born,


American and British mothers, fathers, physicians and donors all worked to articulate what artificial insemination meant to them.  They struggled to express their personal and religious understandings of technology and reproduction, and to understand what AI meant for postwar societies concerned with the reintegration of soldiers, the rebuilding of families, and transformative possibilities of technology.  This seminar explores how particular sites of ideological, scientific, and bodily conflict arose between users and practitioners of AI during this period.  Taking center stage in the story of artificial insemination, the seminar also focuses on how the reproductive bodies of disabled veterans became interwoven into technological and rehabilitative narratives about artificial insemination after their return home from World War II.


Histories of reproduction have tended to portray artificial insemination as a “low-tech” development of small historical importance—of secondary importance next to more “high-tech” and bodily invasive forms of assisted reproduction—including IVF, surrogacy, and egg donation that emerged in the later decades. These narratives have often presented AI history as defined by negative social reception.  Most of those conclusions, I argue, are misguided — principally because they focused on these scientific discoveries in biology by privileging the physicians' perspectives. Using a variety of archival sources from birth control and fertility clinics, newspapers, film, radio, medical and popular journals, as well as letters and insights of users themselves, this seminar will instead foreground patient and donor narratives and agency from the post-World War II era.  In my broader work, which informs this presentation, I also explore how patient’s perspectives on race, gender, and medicine integrally shaped their pursuit of parenthood.


By taking this new look at artificial insemination, the presentation raises a larger methodological question about how the sources we use to make our histories of reproduction influence interpretations about users and practitioners, and inform our ideas about bodies, sexual practices, social actors, and visibility.  For example, using these popular sources, we can see how the definition of who is an AI patient (commonly perceived of as women) can shift.  Male bodies re-surface in the post-war story of infertility as visible actors.  We also see how the concept of using AI as a means to aid conception was fought out in the popular media, including in fiction and film, and how the practice took on new significance by creating new geographies of knowledge.

Bridget Gurtler is a doctoral candidate in History at Rutgers University.  Her dissertation, Synthetic Parenthood: A History of Artificial Insemination, 1900-1980,” examines how popular discourses of gender, race, sexuality, and family influenced patients and in turn, medical practice and knowledge to allow the constant reinterpretation and reimagining of artificial insemination in the twentieth century.  She is currently a Fellow at the Rutgers Institute for Research on Women and a Research Assistant at Rutgers Center for Race and Ethnicity.

Part of the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Reproduction Forum seminar series.

Open to all.  No registration required.

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