21 May 2014 12:00pm - 2:00pm CRASSH Seminar room SG1


Dr Anna Maerker  (History, Kings College London)
The materiality of “body things”

Dr Margaret Carlyle  (HPS, University of Cambridge)
Inventing birthing bodies in Enlightenment France



Dr Anna Maerker
How do materials shape cultures of healing, and how do healing cultures influence the development and use of materials? Historically, a wide range of materials have been crucial for the development of medicine. The introduction of plants from the New World significantly increased the number of drugs available to early modern patients. At the same time, this expansion challenged traditional systems of knowledge and exchange, and prompted the development of new practices both of classification and economic regulation. The improvement of steel created the possibility of new types of prostheses as well as reshaping the relationship between patients, artisans and physicians. The fabric of the body itself, used as raw material for medical intervention and research, creates ethical problems to the present day, from the extraction of paupers’ teeth for rich clients in the eighteenth century to the experimental use of cell cultures in the twentieth century. Today I would like to explore four interrelated areas of investigation using brief preliminary case studies of four “body things”: Materials and meaning, materials in medical practice, materials and communities, materials and experience.


Dr Margaret Carlyle
What do pelvis-measuring pliers, artificial arms, breastpumps, and pregnant mock-women have in common? They are all facets of technological development in an age of Enlightenment at a time when midwives and medical men turned to material culture to find solutions to age-old problems encountered in the birthing chamber. This paper focuses on the boom of birthing instruments in eighteenth-century France, which were designed as practical implements and constructed from materials including metal, crystal, textiles, wax, and wicker. While some, like the teaching manikin, mimicked the birthing body as part of classroom simulations, the “pelvimètre” functioned as a prenatal measuring device, while the breastpump stimulated the postnatal body to produce infant milk. The multiple usages of these pedagogical, quantifying, and prognosticating tools indicate the spirit of mechanical invention that pervaded the culture of birthing more broadly in this period. This was a culture in which both male and female authorities participated, and the underlying goal of this paper is to demonstrate the complementary and sometimes antagonistic roles played by men and women in regimes of medical invention. Examples of male-female conflict also provide an opportunity to explore the gendering of “bodily things” related to birthing in this period. Finally, these inventions are situated within ongoing public debates over the state’s role in promoting population growth through safer birthing practices and the increasing importance of consumerism to medical materiality.


Open to all. No registration required.

For further information please visit Things: Comparing Material Cultures 1500-1900 (main page)

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