Putting aside all modesty, let me scream and shout to you my excitement about my latest feature article in New Scientist, one of my favorite magazines.
I uncovered this story several years ago as I was writing a book on early pregnancy and childbirth. I tried and tried to find a way to include Pierre Dionis’s detective story in my chapter on “Uterine Legends,” but could never find a way to fit it in.
The question of “fetus in fetu” and the links to testicular pregnancies were too much of a detour from my main point, so I had to let it drop. (Yes, there were claims that a man carried a fetus in his testicles!)
Tales about decades-long pregnancies are actually very common in 16th- and 17th-century medical treatises. I tracked variants of one specific legend from the late 16th century through to late 18th century. In each, a woman went into labor and then the labor stalled – leaving her “pregnant” for decades.
What fascinated me was that the outcome changed ever so slightly in each variant. In 1582, there was absolutely no mention of the possibility of removing the post-term fetus. In 1678, the woman begs doctors to operate to get rid of her “unpleasant load.” But the doctors refuse. By 1748, however, the doctors actually beg the woman to submit to a c-section. She refuses and dies. The doctors end up admonishing the woman for her stubbornness and watch her die. (Medical history is rarely pretty, folks.)
Interestingly, these accounts track – precisely – the dramatic shifts that were taking place in regard to attitudes toward cesarean sections. In the 16th century, c-sections were frankly unimaginable. By the 17th century, they had been proposed by certain renegade doctors but summarily dismissed by the majority of surgeons as “cruel and dangerous operation” (Phillipe Peu, 1694) or, worse, “a great excess of inhumanity, of cruelty, and of barbarity” (François Mauriceau, 1668).
By the second half of the eighteenth century, things began to change. The procedure was considered more practical and less painful, after surgeons changed the location of the incision: horizontal, across the abdominal muscles to vertical, between the connective tissues of the muscles. (Yet, it’s well worth pointing out that “less painful” is all in the eye of the beholder – given that we are still centuries away from effective anesthesia and antisepsis.) While still rare and usually deadly, c-sections were now part of surgeons’ procedural toolboxes. And, hence, in the last variant of the tale, they were newly ready to stress – and adamantly so – that the parturient mother submit to the horrific procedure.
I couldn’t be more pleased with the home that it found in the New Scientist – and with the layout of the feature in the print edition. I love the inclusion of Rosamond Purcell’s extraordinary recreation of the engraving of Ole Worm’s Cabinet of Curiosity (have fun comparing it with the image above). The print version of the piece also includes an image of an ectopic pregnancy by Dionis (the protagonist of the story).