Around 1900, few pregnant women in Western Europe or North America had any contact with a medical practitioner before going into labour. By the end the twentieth century, the hospitalisation of childbirth, the legalisation of abortion and a host of biomedical technologies from the Pill and IVF to obstetric ultrasound and prenatal diagnosis had dramatically extended the reach of science and medicine into human reproduction. A special issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences published this month reflects on the social, medical and technological shifts that have shaped the experience and management of pregnancy since the turn of the twentieth century. Originating in a workshop held in Cambridge in 2012 supported by the Wellcome Trust-funded ‘Transforming Pregnancy Since 1900 project, the special issue is edited by Dr Salim Al-Gailani (University of Cambridge) and Dr Angela Davis (University of Warwick).
The work of Don Shelton, featured in his article ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes‘, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 103 (2010) 46–50., where he claims that the eighteenth-century men-midwives William Smellie and William Hunter had women murdered to order, to provide the illustrations for their impressive atlases of obstetrics, has given rise to considerable controversy.
Helen King discusses his work in a recent article ‘History WIthout Historians? Medical History and the Internet‘, Social History of Medicine, published online ahead of print 8th June 2011, which she has based on a paper delivered at the De Partu colloquium held in Manchester in June 2010. She argues that Shelton’s claims raise fresh questions about how medical history is generated, presented and evaluated in the media and, in particular, on the internet. She traces the generation and subsequent reception of what, for some, has now become a ‘historical fact’, in order to illustrate how attempts by medical historians to engage with policy and with the public exist alongside a shift towards the deprofessionalisation of history.