The history of science, on its own terms

As a professor of early European medicine and science, I come across all sorts of amazing stories and images. Cabbages with human hands growing from them; mandrakes even better than anything J.K. Rowling could think up; and human-faced sheep.

It’s ok to stare in bewilderment at these images. And it’s even ok to wonder how in the world our predecessors could have ever believed in such things. But what we can’t do is write it off as sheer uninformed superstition or folklore.

Here’s the rub: such images are not the result of silly ancestral imaginations. They were, at the time, serious science. The fact of the matter is that these illustrations were published in the top scientific journals of the seventeenth century–and by well-respected natural philosophers, as scientists were then called. These images and thousands like it represented the period’s best understanding of what was known of the natural world. Scientia, knowledge.

Then—as is now—science and scientists do their best with the knowledge to which they have access. For the early-modern era, this meant living in a world that, for at least a little longer, defied definition–a world where the distinctions among man, woman, beast, plant, and mineral were anything but clear.

Case in point: Male Pregnancy

In 1700, the French Royal Academy of Sciences reported that a young man became “pregnant” after having been interrupted in the middle of lovemaking. A few hours after his embraces, he felt a dull ache in one of his testicles. By the next day, the testicle had become noticeably swollen. And over the space of nine months, it had grown “immeasurably.” Doctors had no choice but to amputate. They were unsettled by what they found.

In its case report, the Academy of Sciences noted the following:

There has been for some time an absurd rumor of a pregnant man, but as absurd as it is, it does have some foundation….The semblance of a head, the kind of afterbirth that was present, and the duration of eight or nine months gives rise to the fable of pregnancy, although on this occasion, the Fable was not necessary for it to be marvelous.

The famous court surgeon Pierre Dionis, however, called it as he saw it—which turns out to be pretty much how we see it now. The testicular mass was nothing other than a tumor that happen to grow, coincidentally, not long after the young man’s ill-fated encounter.

They say that seeing is believing. But more often than not, believing also becomes seeing. For as much as we laud modern science for its objectivity, knowledge is nonetheless both produced and constrained by the lens, the frame, through which we happen to view our world. And because our questions are filtered the dominant worldview and the questions it allows us to ask (or keeps us from asking), so to are the answers that we are likely to find (or not find).

Stories of male pregnancy are hardly surprising when we consider just how topsy-turvy the world of reproductive theory was when this odd case of testicular pregnancy was reported. The egg had only been recently discovered in 1672; spermatozoa in 1677.

Divisive battles raged in scientific circles about what this meant for baby-making. Few disagreed with the preformationist doctrine, which held that each human being existed preformed in either the egg or the sperm. (Epigenesis was still at least another 150 years or so away.)

The question was then: would women or men be able to claim full responsibility for reproduction? In the animaculist (spermist) view, it would have made perfect sense that a man could impregnate himself.

But before we laugh too hard, are we really all that far away from our 17th century colleagues after all? To what degree do own biomedical advances give rise to some pretty amazing reveries of their own?

Guest Blogger Profile: HOLLY TUCKER (web/twitter) is Associate Professor of Medicine, Health & Society and French & Italian at Vanderbilt University. Her most recent book, Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine & Murder in the Scientific Revolution
comes out in March with W.W. Norton.

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2 Responses to The history of science, on its own terms

  1. jeconnery says:

    A wonderful post! I cannot agree more.

    As an undergraduate, I had the good luck to meet with the microhistorian Carlo Ginzburg at a time when I was writing my own senior thesis. I was writing about a tricky case of war crimes trials from WWII and was struggling with how to frame certain details and early findings that could be easily spun or misinterpreted. Ginzburg offered one of the defining insights of my education that still rings true: “You must, at all times, seek to sympathize with your subject.”

    Sympathy, of course, is not the same as supporting or praising your subject. It is an interpretive lens. That is, you must suspend the knowledge you enjoy because of the discoveries that came between your time and the time you study and find your way into the mind of the subject. Then, after trying to sympathize, you are better prepared to capitalize on historical distance in the service of critical analysis.

    We ought to understand the world view that was very real — not history — for the subject. To do so opens up a an amazing opportunity to understand how and why people did or did not do things that might, today, seem ignorant or unimaginable. And — I think — it prepares us to look at our own time and our contemporaries with equal parts sympathy and critical objectivity.

    Thanks for the reminder, Holly.