Welcome to the second installment of our regular feature, “Adventures in the Archives!”
In this reoccurring series, Nursing Clio bloggers will share interesting finds in the archives and ask our readers for feedback, ideas, and analysis. It’s just like you’re sitting in the dusty archives with us!
I spent most of this past June in Philadelphia, doing dissertation research at Drexel University’s Legacy Center – a wonderful little archive devoted primarily to the history of women in American medicine. Because my dissertation focuses on the ways that women influenced the development of gynecology and obstetrics in the United States, I rely heavily on the Legacy Center’s collections, especially their extensive records relating to the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
WMCP opened in 1850 (it was originally known as the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania) and became one of the best and most popular American medical programs open to women. Many of the most influential women physicians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries earned their medical degrees at WMCP, and so, for three weeks, I sat at the Legacy Center and paged through their student handbooks, lecture notes, personal correspondence, photograph albums, commencement speeches, obstetrical casebooks, journal publications, and Alumnae Association records.
All of these primary sources proved helpful as I started to piece together the dissertation, but they were generally helpful in a predictable way – for the most part, I was finding exactly what I expected to find, without many of those delightful archive surprises that force historians to think about their subjects in new ways. I was excited, then, when I stumbled across something I hadn’t anticipated – the transcript of a mock infanticide trial held in conjunction with the WMCP obstetrics program in March of 1892.
The point of the mock trial, according to the transcript, was to provide a realistic illustration of Professor Anna E. Broomall’s lectures on infanticide while simultaneously preparing WMCP students to give medical testimony in court. I found this mock trial interesting on a number of levels. First, the case Broomall’s students chose to try involved an unmarried servant woman, bringing up issues of class and sexual morality; the presumption of the prosecutor and many of the witnesses was that “such a woman” might kill her child to conceal her illegitimate pregnancy. Second, the witnesses giving medical testimony referred to the “lung floating test,” which I had not realized was still in use at the end of the nineteenth century (as it turns out, further research revealed that the test is still sometimes used).
In addition, though, I found the very existence of the mock trial as part of the medical school curriculum rather puzzling. It’s always possible that I’ve missed important references, but I haven’t seen descriptions of mock trials as part of late-nineteenth-century medical education, in single-sex or co-educational programs. Surely this wasn’t a typical use of classroom time? As medical schools sought to emphasize laboratory science, where did this prolonged discussion of sexual morality and illegitimate pregnancy fit? And what about infanticide – was it really such a major problem in the United States in 1892?
I put these questions (and any others that occur to you) out into the blogosphere. Thoughts, loyal readers?
You know I know nothing about America. But infanticide was a big issue in France at the time, in part because there was a lot of talk about depopulation. It was also heavily tied to class — there are a couple of books about it I could recommend if you care. There was a lot of concern about examining babies to determine the cause of death — could the woman really have fainted post-partum and accidentally knocked the baby on the floor, killing it? What would those wounds look like? What about the claim that you had the baby in the loo, thinking you were constipated, and it died?
It doesn’t seem as weird as all that, honestly. Most of what we know in France about poor pregnant women comes from these types of trials, which suggests that at least certain types of doctors spent a lot of time doing autopsies and testifying at trials. There was certainly a morality and class component, but it had its “scientific” elements as well. Whether they had mock trials, I have no idea.
Emily, I was hoping you’d chime in! You’ve told me about some of this stuff in the French context before, so it wasn’t like I’d never heard of anything like this anywhere, ever. I’ve even seen references to midwives as witnesses in infanticide trials in the United States, though all a lot earlier than the 1890s.
A great deal of the mock trial testimony does concern the possibility of the woman killing the baby accidentally, perhaps as she attempted to deliver alone.
Thanks for the input!
Have you had a look at Dr. Felicity Turner’s 2010 dissertation on 19th century US infanticide? The chapter on medicalization of infanticide might be interesting to you, although the time period she looks at stops a decade or so short of your mock trial.
I haven’t, Liz, so thank you for the suggestion!