Interview with Nursing Clio Prize 2023 Winner Courtney Thompson

Interview with Nursing Clio Prize 2023 Winner Courtney Thompson

Jacqueline Antonovich

Nursing Clio’s fourth annual best article prize went to Courtney E. Thompson, an associate professor of the History at Mississippi State University, for her article, “Child-Mothers and Invisible Fathers: The Paradox of ‘Precocious Maternity’ and the Pervasiveness of Child Sexual Abuse in Nineteenth-Century America.” I had the pleasure of interviewing Courtney about her important work on the history of pregnant children and sexual abuse in the nineteenth century.

Jacki: Congratulations on winning Nursing Clio’s award for best article! Could you tell our readers more about your research interests in general?

Courtney: Thanks so much! It’s really an honor, as I’ve been an admirer of (and occasional writer for) Nursing Clio for a long time. I am primarily a historian of nineteenth-century American medicine, though my research path has been rather peripatetic, covering such disparate topics as phrenology in nineteenth-century America, intersex bodies in eighteenth-century France and Britain, and, well, child pregnancy, apparently.

Jacki: This article is a radical departure from your book, An Organ of Murder: Crime, Violence, and Phrenology in Nineteenth-Century America, yet I see important connections. In both works, you are concerned with understanding how nineteenth-century Americans thought about crime and “deviant bodies” through the lens of medico-legal knowledge. How did you get interested in the history of child pregnancies?

Courtney: It is indeed a “radical departure”! And I’m pleased you can see connections, because I often struggle to find them myself across my various projects. Yes, I’m generally interested in the history of the body and deviance as it was constructed both culturally and clinically in the nineteenth century. Yet my research, in all honesty, tends to be connected more by process (and accident) than by theme, since often I uncover one research project while investigating another one. For example, while I was working on my dissertation, which became An Organ of Murder, I came across a set of clemency files that led to an article on race and medicine in an odd court case (“The Curious Case of Chastine Cox”), with no phrenology involved.

“Child-Mothers and Invisible Fathers” also had an accidental origin point. I was combing through southern U.S. medical journals from the late nineteenth century looking for advice to medical students, commencement addresses, and similar. On the front page of an 1881 issue of the Louisville Medical News there was a small notice with a quotation from Romeo and Juliet (“CAPULET. She hath not seen the change of fourteen years. PARIS. Younger than she are happy mothers made.”) advertising an article in which “Kentucky beats even Verona in the matter of youthful maternity.” The article in question described the birth of children to two “youthful mothers,” both under the age of twelve. This passage struck me, and even as I continued working on my major project, I also slowly started to collect other accounts I found of “child-mothers” in manuscript and print medical and popular sources.

I’m not a historian of reproduction, so this was a real departure for me, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. The only way I could exorcize it and move on was to write it out. Eventually, I ended up collecting material on precocity more generally, which I spun out into a second article on precocity and disability (“Danger, Disability, and Double Age”). I had planned to write a third essay in my “precocity trilogy,” but personal matters got in the way, and I’ve had to shelve it. Maybe one day I’ll get that itch (and opportunity) again and finish off the trilogy.

A headshot of a woman in a blazer.
Courtney E. Thompson is an Associate Professor in the History of Science and Technology at Mississippi State University. (Courtesy Mississippi State University)

Jacki: Your article illustrates how the pregnant child posed a paradox for both medical and legal discourse in nineteenth-century America. Essentially, while the boundaries between childhood and adulthood were being created during this time, the “child-mother” challenged these emerging categories. Can you tell our readers a little more about that?

Courtney: This central paradox was what drew me to this project and helped me to see a path forward to writing an article. What occurred to me, as I found these sources on child-mothers, was how they revealed the limits of the boundaries that both medical and popular writers were engaged in constructing and reinforcing in the nineteenth century—between childhood and adulthood, between deviant bodies and the normate, between “appropriate” and “inappropriate” sexuality, between white and non-white bodies, and so forth. A child who was also a mother crossed multiple boundaries, in the same way that an intersex body would, for example.

However, age is a category of analysis that is not always given the same attention as race, gender, or sexuality. So, this case study posed an opportunity to look at how the categories and boundaries of gender, race, age, and sexuality intersected in this history, and how they co-created and challenged one another in different sites. I’m often interested in what happens when rhetoric meets reality—when physicians, in particular, frame the body in a prescriptive way that is belied by the existence and experience of real bodyminds. The child-mother was a problem who required a solution for the medical profession.

And of course, most interestingly, the underlying problem that is hard to ignore from our modern perspective—who exactly was responsible for the impregnation of these children—was not considered to be worth commenting on, for most medical writers. The child-mother was understood as a disruption of clinical norms and social identity categories, not evidence of an epidemic of child sexual abuse. Their blindness to this seemingly obvious feature of these cases is fascinating, if not surprising, and something to which I may return.

Jacki: Are there any interesting tidbits that you couldn’t fit into the article?

Courtney: There’s a lot I couldn’t fit in! A lot of pieces came out and went back in over the process of revisions and peer review. (A behind-the-scenes detail: the original peer reviewers weren’t convinced about the incest/child sexual abuse analysis, and so I took it out for the first round of R&R. But then the editors changed, as did the reviewers, and so the final section came back in. What a different article it would have been!)

The big piece that I had to take out, largely for space, was the original conclusion, in which I analyzed two images I found of a pregnant Black girl from the turn of the century, using them as a way to think about finding these voices in the archive (and what to do with images like these, which I did not want to reproduce). This discussion was one of the hardest cuts for me. I did try to revive it as part of a short piece for Nursing Clio, but it wasn’t accepted. One day I’m sure I’ll come back to it, perhaps as a broader essay on the uses of visual culture, because those images haunt me.

Also, I actually did find some manuscript letters in which one physician reports a case of precocious pregnancy to one of the key physicians I discuss in the essay, but unfortunately I didn’t come across these until after the article was in print. There’s a lesson in here about slow history that unfortunately I have not yet fully internalized.

Jacki: What’s next for you on the research front?

Courtney: I’m still working on the same project for which I had been searching through southern medical journals, a book tentatively entitled A Calculus of Compassion: Medicine, Emotion, and Identity in Nineteenth-Century America. This book will bring a history of emotions framework to the doctor/patient relationship, focusing in particular on medical practice in the post-Reconstruction South and western Indigenous reservations.

I’m also very excited about the edited volume I’m co-editing with Kylie Smith, Do Less Harm: Ethical Questions for Health Historians, which has grown out of two years of conversations and planning with a Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (CHSTM) workshop on ethics and the history of medicine. I am so proud of this project and eager to see it in print, which should hopefully be soon, as we are completing our final edits before it goes into production this spring.

Jacki:  Thank you so much for your thoughtful answers and for doing this important work on such a troubling topic! Once again, congratulations on winning this year’s Nursing Clio article prize.

Featured image courtesy Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.

Jacqueline Antonovich is the creator and co-founder of Nursing Clio and served as executive editor from 2012 to 2021. She is an Assistant Professor of History at Muhlenberg College. Her current research focuses on women physicians, race, gender, and medical imperialism in the American West. Jacqueline received her PhD from the University of Michigan in 2018.

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