Birth and the Monster: Probing the Boundaries of Reproduction

Hello again--Brandy Schillace here, from the Daily Dose and Fiction Reboot (

I have a seemingly endless fascination with the two spectrum-ends of life: birth and death. As a medical humanist PhD, I study the history of birth and reproduction in the 18th and 19th century... but don't expect publications on breathing class and knitting baby socks. Given my focus on Gothic medicine, these births tend to be the monster kind.

One of my recent publications looks at the "birthing machine," a device created in the 18th century to train male midwives [“’Reproducing’ Custom: Mechanical Habits and Female Machines in Augustan Women’s Education” Feminist Formations, [FF 25.1, pagination forthcoming] (Spring 2013)] The machine looked a lot like a real woman, so the legend goes, with the exception that it gave birth once an hour and didn't have a head. A mindless birthing woman--for some 18th century patriarchs, the perfect wife! I hope to be publishing a paper dedicated exclusively to the machine in the Appendix Journal soon.

Another of my recent projects is an edited collection, Birthing the Monster of Tomorrow. Wonderful contributors take a look at the link between birth and monstrosity (my contribution is about vampires and congenital syphilis). In terms of "probing the boundaries" of reproduction, I run a conference in Prague by that title--keep watching here; if all goes well, perhaps we will have an e-book to share!

For today, I leave you with an excerpt of my current book project--but you can find our more about these and other weird science wonders on my blog. And--if you enjoy fiction--don't forget to see my companion blog the Fiction Reboot. My most recent contributor was Sam Thomas, who wrote The Midwife's Tale (a historical murder mystery). As I say, I'm never far from birth and death... but then again, are any of us? See:

Monstrous Mothers, Monstrous Births: the Horror of the Birthing Chamber in Popular Magazines and Short Fiction

The whole of that part of the cranium or brain case, with its usual contents, which is naturally covered with hairy scalp, was absolutely wanting, and the foramen magnum occipitis covered with a blood exerescence […] I feared it would survive.[i]

—Dr. Stryker, Letter to the Editor, Feb 28, 1809

Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath […] his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set […] were fixed on me.

—Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Chapter 5, Frankenstein 1818

By the time Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Prometheus Unbound was published, the Gothic tradition was well established, though still evolving. The early romances that shaped Radcliffian Gothic were both revisited and reshaped by the sublime imagination of Romantic writers (a group to whom Shelley herself belonged.) However, increasing interest in and access to scientific discourse provided additional material; widespread debate about electrical stimulation and reflex, William Cullen and Robert Whytt’s work on the nervous system, and Charles Bell’s theories on the anatomy of the brain were fertile ground for imaginative speculation and certainly part of the cultural context near the time of Frankenstein’s publication. The monstrosity of the man-made man—a figure I will return to at length in Chapter Five—nonetheless has its predecessor in the monstrosity of “woman-made man,” the deformed and monstrous child of the equally horrific and mysterious womb. By the end of the 17th century, scientific societies has begun to question “wonderful” and monstrous accounts, but though wonders “had lost their aura,”[ii] the monstrous continued to interest and enthrall (and sell newspapers). This chapter explores the medicalization of birth in the eighteenth century and its representation not only in scientific debate but also in sensationalized news accounts which—like early versions of the “penny dreadful,” circulated tales of terror. London papers, magazines and popular miscellanies published records of horrific births, even as the “orphaned” child and “monstrous”mother became a trop for Gothic fiction.

[i] From a letter to the editor. Coxe, John Redman. The Philadelphia medical museum, Volume 6. (Philadelphia, 1809), 145.

[ii] “The 18th Century: Monsters as a Battleground for Scientific and Philisophical Debates,” A Telling of Wonders, Exhibit of the New York Academic of Medicine Rare Book Room. Jul 7, 2012. <