Come and see our work in progress on the Conceiving Histories project, which looks at the history of un-pregnancy (trying to conceive, the difficulty of diagnosing early pregnancy and reproductive disappointment).
WEDNESDAY 17th MAY 2017, 6-7.30pm. Keynes Library, 43 Gordon Square. FREE. ALL WELCOME. Book a place here.
We will be talking about pregnancy diagnosis today and in the past. How did people in the past imagine and anticipate the future of pregnancy diagnosis? For all our technological advancement, in what ways does our experience of trying to diagnose early pregnancy resemble that of people in the past?
Here is one assessment from Giralamo Mercurio in the fifteenth century, which didn’t quite predict the future:
As to the signs that some people think they see in the urine, this is such a false lie that it belongs more to charlatans than to physicians because the moon has more to do with shrimp than with urine in showing whether or not a woman is pregnant.
How reasonable he sounds but, it turns out, how wrong. Of course Mercurio was arguing against those who thought that urine was key to pregnancy diagnosis, who imagined the future that we now inhabit. Come and hear more about a curious history which is strangely more connected with our world today than is always thought.
We’ll be looking at some new art work from Anna Burel which focuses on the bizarre Xenopus frog pregnancy test, used in the twentieth century. Here is an example:
This is how the writer Angela Carter imagined a pregnancy diagnosis at eight weeks in her unpublished short story ‘The Baby’ from about 1961. The skirt and stockings on the floor, the doctor washing his hands: Carter imagines an internal examination. ‘The Baby’ is intended to be naturalistic – a woman discovers she is pregnant and worries, particularly about her relationship with her partner. The story is mostly not magical realism of the kind that made Carter famous. However, an eight week pregnancy couldn’t, indeed still can’t be, determined by internal examination and so the story in this excerpt is inadvertently magical, more like a fairytale than anything true to life. Carter imagines the doctor here as all-knowing, even as having special powers.
One of the things that the conceiving Histories project is trying to do is to look at the history of not-knowing, a history of the time when people are wondering ‘am I? aren’t I?’. Part of what we want to look at is the search for a diagnosis in that in-between time and the desires and fantasies generated in ignorance. In ‘The Baby’ the protagonist feels foolish because she doesn’t know and the doctor does. But there is an even more profound unknowing which may be the source of the sense of foolishness described here.
Before it was possible to piss on a stick to determine pregnancy, urine was injected sub-dermally into animals. For much of the twentieth century it was frogs, mostly South African clawed xenopus laevis toads – aquatic, carnivorous and tropical. Frogs because they emitted eggs externally and did so in reaction to the injection of pregnant urine, and so didn’t have to be dissected to get the result. As Edward Elkan, a doctor who kept a hundred frogs in a tank on the balcony of his flat overlooking Regents Park for testing his private patients in the 1930s, wrote: the xenopus test has the advantage over other tests which require ‘hecatombs of young mice’. The test was as accurate as our pregnancy tests are today.
The logistics of this test, as it developed in the ‘40s and ‘50s are extraordinary. Women’s urine was sent with a fee by post from doctors’ surgeries and pharmacies to diagnostic centres where it was injected into frogs which had been sent by ship from South Africa. The Family Planning Association archive, at the Wellcome Library, is full of documents about the international transport in these frogs. The FPA got their frogs from Peers Snake Farm and Zoo in Cape Town, through an animal transport agent, Thomas Cook and Sons.
They bought them in batches of 500; mainly these were female frogs but sometimes also male ones. They started getting them in 1949 and stopped in 1963 when immunoassay tests were available. The frog supply was dependent on the weather and the health of the population; sometimes they died in transit. One of the main questions which dogs the archive, to give a sense of the logistical challenge presented by this test, is whether it is cheaper to ship back the containers that the frogs came in or buy new ones each time.
Pregnancy really wasn’t diagnosed through internal examination, then, in the way that Carter imagines in ‘The Baby’. This lack of knowledge isn’t peculiar to Angela Carter. Most people didn’t know how pregnancy was diagnosed at the beginning of the 1960s; lots of medical practitioners themselves had no idea. Lots of people don’t know today that this was the way that pregnancy testing was done for most of the twentieth century. Women got their results from doctors, rather from the test centre itself. Because tests were usually done in extremis, the result was no doubt the important thing, rather than finding out how the trick was done.
The Family Planning Archive is full of all sorts of documents about this test but what isn’t in the archive is much about women themselves, the people being tested. So, on the one hand, we have Angela Carter’s story and a lack of knowledge about how a result was achieved, that is how pregnancy was diagnosed and, on the other hand, the archive articulates an equivalent ignorance or at least a lack of curiosity about the people whose urine was being tested in the frog labs. The labs tested urine, not people.
In response to this, Anna Burel, who is making artwork as part of the Conceiving Histories project, has set about the task of creating a fictional archive which re-introduces the idea of the tested woman missing from the archive.
She is using the forms of the documents in the Family Planning Archive to do this, picking out the visual elements of telegrams which went backwards and forwards between the Association’s diagnostic centre in Chelsea, Thomas Cook and the snake farm in Cape Town.
She has also made a number of plaster frogs, each has its own type written label, marked with the name of a fictional person. Each of those tags corresponds to the label on a urine sample bottle.
Making fictitious matches between frog and urine, by inserting names, Anna’s work is trying to close the gap between the diagnostic centre, and what went on there, and the lives of people who sent in their samples and waited for results. She is presenting, through the gesture of her figures, an impression of their responses to their results.
Anna and I have been thinking a lot about the annunciation, in relation to the whole project, as a pregnancy test before such things existed; no doubt there’ll be another blog post about it. What a wish-fulfilment fantasy: someone will come from another world and tell me the answer. We have been thinking about the annunciation, too, in relation to the lack of knowledge of the urine/xenopus test. In the traditional idea of the annunciation – when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she’s going to have a baby in the Gospel – Mary’s pregnancy isn’t just announced it is also brought into being at exactly the same time. Often this is depicted in medieval art by a ray of sunlight, coming through a window, beaming onto or into Mary, sometimes carrying a little image of Christ or the holy spirit in the form of a dove.
Returning to Angela Carter’s imagined scene, she describes something rather similar. The doctor knows by putting his hands inside her, penetrating her in a mundane version of the divine conception. He magically reports and also symbolically impregnates, putting the foetus into the womb by hand.
Given the lack of knowledge about diagnostic practice, women might as well have been told their results by angels, the diagnostic centre was as remote as the other, spiritual world from which angels are thought to come.
 ‘The Baby’ (c. 1961), London, British Library MS Additional 88899/1/42
 Edward Elkan, Sketches from my Life, (1983), p. 56. London, Wellcome Library MS 9151.
 One person who does know is Cambridge researcher Jesse Olszynko-Gryn. He is currently preparing a book on the history of pregnancy testing. You can read some of his work and find out more about the xenopus test here.
In the past medical practitioners were in the same boat as their patients when it came to diagnosing early pregnancy. If you’ve ever wondered ‘am I pregnant?’ you’ll know that it’s not always that straightforward to ascertain. Some people, of course, know it straight away: their symptoms are really strong and when they do a pregnancy test it’s confirmed. Others experience things differently. They might not be sure at all but getting a positive pregnancy test sorts it out for them. Those that get a negative result may have to wait a little longer to find out but, eventually, a negative is a negative and they can be sure. The ambiguity of early pregnancy is capped for us, in a way that it wasn’t in the past, by reliable tests and sonography.
Just like their patients, modern medical practitioners also have a wait before they can rely on the tests and scans. In that wait they may well feel for their patients, recognizing that the wait isn’t very easy especially if they’re waiting like this every month for years indefinitely. They don’t, though, endure the wait in quite the same way; they have lots of patients and no doubt their own preoccupations. The cap provided by modern testing technologies means that they are removed from a considerable predicament which medical practitioners faced in the past. Of course, practitioners’ concerns are different from those of their patients. Whilst some of them worried about pregnancy diagnosis because they wanted to help their patients, others worried for themselves – for their medical reputations – and others worried for society at large. After all, if you can’t diagnose pregnancy it is hard to establish paternity and so ensure correct title and property transfer, those things which underpinned social, economic and political life. In societies which put a lot of store in blood lineage, a woman’s curiosity about her condition and her future were much less important than male anxieties about whether their children were their children.
Sadly we don’t have as much historical evidence as we would like about the feelings of ordinary people who were trying to conceive and not having much luck. But what we do have is quite extensive evidence of the difficulty that practitioners report about trying to diagnose pregnancy. Looking at that evidence exposes as age-old some of the perplexities within the experience of trying to conceive and, because of this, thinking about those difficulties in the past may help us to think through our own today. Sometimes it’s easy to think that in our modern times we are peculiarly impatient, peculiarly unused to desires not being realized, peculiarly anxious to know about our futures; it’s easy to imagine that people in the past accepted unknowns more readily than us. However, that’s not what the archive shows. People in the past were just as eager as we are to know things and they thought hard about how they could to come to know them.
The Experimental Conception Hospital is a fictional laboratory invented in relation to a legitimacy case in 1825-6. It is an extraordinary idea about how conception might be pinpointed in a time before the relationships between menstruation, ovulation and the processes of conception were fully known. Our project has been working on this fantasy institution in different ways, writing an account of it for publication but also making art work which takes a different look at the Hospital. We have put together a little 5 minute film (below). The images are part of a long piece of artwork which Anna Burel is making to present the Hospital’s 100 female experimental subjects. They are in different stages of undress and take up different postures. They are waiting, queueing perhaps. They are faceless, wearing masks. They are just numbers. The sound gives the full text of the Hospital’s description, detailing how it will be arranged. It is a dream institution which will resolve the questions of law raised by the difficulties of pregnancy diagnosis. It is imagined from a male perspective and gives no thought at all to the people incarcerated and experimented on. It is a dark Gothic science-fiction, an erotic fantasy about walling up women.
This week is fertility awareness week. As part of events this week, Fertility Network UK has a ‘hidden faces’ campaign to challenge stereotypes about who might struggle to become a parent. The campaign comments, too, on the unseen nature of fertility issues.
The strong cultural message not to mention a pregnancy until the end of the first trimester brings with it a cultural silence about infertility and miscarriage. Because of this silence, many who find themselves struggling to conceive are surprised by the experience.
Pregnancy books, whilst they often have a section on fertility treatment, don’t often dwell on the very common experience of things just not happening for a long time. They have sections on late miscarriage, but don’t say very much about early ones. There is often an inset about how long, on average, it takes people to conceive, but no one is average so it means little to an individual reader. The cultural representation of pregnancy often emphasizes its immediacy: that even one sperm at any time of the month might fertilise an egg. Watch out, we rightly tell children in sex ed. But really it often takes time. It takes time, too, to discover there’s a problem, time to approach a doctor, time in which people are wondering and waiting.
On the page about fertilization in a popular ‘childbirth bible’ a diagram of the female reproductive organs, cut away so you can see inside, shows an egg being released from the ovary on the far left. Just below, the egg is pictured again surrounded by sperm.
It is shown again, dividing on its journey across the page and down the fallopian tube; again, implanting in the uterus wall; and a blown up detail depicts an embryo at four weeks gestation. Then, on the far right of the page, with its feet nearly kicking the cervix, is a baby: naked, smiling, lying on its front and holding up its head.
Given that babies generally can’t hold their heads up and smile about it, until they are at least four months old, this page charts a process which takes, at absolute best, thirteen months, or fifty-seven weeks in pregnancy-speak. For those that spend any time trying to get from one side of the page to the other, let alone onto the next section of the book – ‘You and your developing baby’ – this image and its neat representation of all the processes of conception happening perfectly, and all at once, doesn’t look quite right. There’s a bit, a wait, missing from this diagram.
Our histories of conception also jump ahead to pregnancy and childbirth. If you do a vox pop in the street and ask people ‘what do you know about pregnancy in the past?’ people would probably say that it was scary and that childbirth was really dangerous, that, because of this, there were lots of ways in which women tried to prevent pregnancy. Women might join a nunnery to avoid the dangers of marriage and childbirth, for example, or they might take drugs to ‘regulate’ periods, which also had the unspoken effect of terminating unwanted pregnancies.
These things are true and lots of good historical research tells us so. But there is also another story to tell, which hasn’t been told as often: the history of not being pregnant for month on month, year on year, for a lifetime. Parts of this history have been written in different places, but those parts haven’t been put together yet in a cross-period study which precisely addresses this issue. That’s what the Conceiving Histories project is trying to do: bringing material together which is already out there, but also uncovering things which are hidden in the archives – bringing out the Hidden Faces of the past.
To give just one example, this week I am going to be talking at a workshop about the case of Queen Mary I (1516-1558). It’s quite well known by historians that she had two false pregnancies. She thought she was pregnant, her physicians and female attendants thought she was pregnant, but she wasn’t. She waited and waited, well beyond her supposed due date, and nothing happened. Her husband (Philip II of Spain) waited, too; the Venetian Ambassador wrote home that ‘one single hour’s delay in the delivery seems to him a thousand years’. Everything was ready: a nursery with a crib, beautifully painted with a special prayer, the public was poised to celebrate. Everybody waited … forever.
Whilst she waited, Mary wrote letters to her friends and to foreign heads of state announcing the birth. She left the date blank and enough space after the word ‘prince’ to add the Ss which would announce a girl instead.
She made other arrangements, writing her will, for example, as lots of women did, in case they died in childbirth.
Then somehow word went out that the baby had been born: there had been no labour pains; the baby, a boy, was born. It was a perfect story. Easy.
[P]eople made public demonstrations of joy, by shutting the shops, processions in churches, ringing the bells, public tables being spread with wine and viands for all comers; and although it was day there were bonfires in the streets.
Mary had retired to Hampton Court when she thought her baby was due. She was ‘lying in’ and so it was understood that she wasn’t out and about. Eventually, though, when the expected baby wasn’t born, she had to come out. She had to face the public and her humiliation at not being able to conceive and give birth, showing her hidden face. Gathering her nobles and attendants, the court ambassadors, the Lord Mayor and all the London aldermen she went out with the full royal insignia expected when the Queen went out in public. A huge crowd greeted her along a long road.
Historians are most usually interested in how these events intersected with other aspects of her rule, which is a fascinating question of course. But I want to think about what else we might do with this story, how we might use it to think about now, as well as then. One of the things that particularly interests me is the material substance of pregnancies that don’t happen– the pre-written letters, the empty crib, the premature party. I want to look more at this non-event in our future project and think about the history of what Jessica Hepburn has movingly described as ‘the pain of never’. For lots of people today this ‘never’ has real substance yet, paradoxically, it’s not visible because of our cultural reticence on early pregnancy and fertility issues. National Fertility Awareness Week is all about finding the hidden stories and people’s experience of waiting, hopefully for something, but perhaps for nothing.
To say that nothing, no pregnancy, has a hard material trace is surprising perhaps but it testifies to the existence of a history of un-pregnancy, which Conceiving Histories is unearthing and reassembling. It is there, it’s just hidden.
Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts Existing in the Archives and Collections of Venice, 1534-1554, ed Rawdon Brown (London: Longman, 1873), #116, p. 93. June 1st 1555.
We’re pleased to announce that Conceiving Histories is part of the Being Human Festival programme in November 2016. The festival is a showcase of current humanities research and there is a great programme of events across the country. The theme this year is ‘Hope and Fear’, which speaks directly into the heart of what the Conceiving Histories project is all about.
FREE – book here. When: 23rd November 2016, 6pm-8pm (includes a wine reception).
Hope and fear are projections of the future. Whether hoping or fearing pregnancy, waiting to find out can be difficult. This project looks at what happens in that wait, in the fantasy space before diagnosis – of pregnancy or infertility. How does future projection affect our present? This interest in the present and the future is informed by a study of the past. History, it turns out, is a good way of reflecting on how things are for us and how they could be in the future, a reminder that we are not the first to struggle with uncertainty in our own bodies or in our lives.
Conceiving histories will be addressing the theme of Hope and Fear in the history of un-pregnancy through two curious case studies. One looks at an odd fashion from 1792-3 for the Pad, a false tummy which simulated pregnancy. Most of the evidence for it is from contemporary satire, like in this image here which laughs at the idea that, with a Pad, anyone – old or young – could be ‘pregnant’ with this new look. Even the little girl on the left is padded and so is her doll.
We look at the ludic celebration of this potentially absurd fashion but ask some serious questions about it. Today maternity fashions are very exclusive. The divide between maternity wear and other fashions is carefully observed. How does this contribute to the other social distinctions we make between women who can have children and those who can’t or haven’t yet? How does this exclusivity make us feel? Can we imagine fashions for today that enable a participation in pregnancy for all? When we look at the comedy in these depictions of this fashion can we reflect on the potential humiliation in not being, or not being able to be pregnant?
Our other case study is darker, responding more to the festival’s theme of fear. It explores an idea for a strange institution, the experimental conception hospital, described in a commentary on a peerage dispute from 1825-6. With high walls and strict staff recruited from nunneries, the hospital would be a secure and secret space in which a hundred women were brought in as experimental subjects. These experiments would solve pressing questions about how to diagnose early pregnancy in an age before reliable pregnancy testing and calculate precisely the length of gestation. What a public service that would be! The experimental conception hospital presents a fantasy about the future but one which looks back to the medieval past. Just as our project does, it sees history as key to our reproductive futures. We’ll be looking at this intriguing historical example to think about fantasies of scientific objectivity in relation to the reproductive body and why such fantasies might trigger a return to historic ideas and materials.
Isabel Davis and Anna Burel will be discussing these case studies, considering them historically. However, they will also be presenting new artistic responses to them which are helping to shape the Conceiving Histories project. There will be time to ask questions or offer comments on the work presented and a wine reception for more informal conversation.
Please be aware that the artwork in this event tackles the emotive subject of the female body in relation to pregnancy. Some people may find the images that will be presented disturbing. Click here to see the character of the work, although not the specific images involved in this event.
You may also be interested in another event, also at the Being Human Festival:
The Maternity Tales Listening Booth, an interactive installation exploring the spatial history of childbirth. Created by architectural historian, Dr Emma Cheatle, see and hear accounts of homes and midwives in the 18th century and lying-in hospitals in the 19th century. Fill in questionnaires or make recordings of your own experiences of maternity spaces.
This project came from my own experience of trying to conceive, such a strange encounter with the body in time. This encounter is a constant shifting of both the future, as our desires for ourselves repeatedly take shape and dissolve, and the present, breaking up the present into the phases of the menstrual cycle. The time before it is possible to test for pregnancy is often referred to as ‘the two week wait’. This phrase developed in relation to assisted reproductive technologies: two weeks is the time between the transfer of an embryo and the time you can test to see if the transfer has been successful. The phrase has moved over to cover a similar sized gap between ovulation and testing for those trying to conceive naturally.
Is it two weeks? Because negative pregnancy test results are less reliable than positive ones, for lots of women who aren’t pregnant it takes a little longer, actually, to finally accept that there’s no pregnancy that month. So, two to three weeks? Well yes, except that many women and their partners are waiting like this month on month, year on year, possibly forever. That time can sometimes feel like a waste of energy, a dispiriting and depressingly predictable cycle of the same emotions.
As an academic who works on the past, it struck me that this wait, with its strange rhythms, swirling impressions and fantasies, symptoms and nebulous signs, was oddly historic. It didn’t feel very modern not to know, to be fed false information by my body, to believe and yet to be so wrong.
So, I began to read. If this is what it’s like today, what was it like in the past?
I am finding that the archives are full with materials about the difficulties of trying to diagnose early pregnancy. Before the advent of home test kits, in the late 1970s, pregnancy testing was usually reserved for particularly hard cases – for people with very irregular cycles for example, or for people with medical conditions for whom pregnancy could be dangerous. Before the advent of reliable pregnancy testing in the early twentieth century accurate diagnosis of pregnancy was often a hard thing to do.
Women, men and medical practitioners were all exposed to this difficulty, the ambiguity of the not yet or just pregnant body. Their desire to know first imagined (and so made possible) the technologies we count on today. Sometimes it’s easy to imagine that people were more accepting in the past; but that isn’t what I’m finding. People were as anxious as we are to know things, like what shape their families would have in their futures.
All the literature on trying to conceive for people today acknowledges the difficulty of this wait. Lots of organisations are hosting and setting up support for people who experience it. This project seeks to do something a little different: to get into that waiting space, to think harder about the psychological and physiological ambiguity it exposes and, perhaps, to offer people a toolbox – a modern engagement with extraordinary archival materials – with which to manage the wait in their own lives. Conceiving Histories may have started by thinking about the two week wait but it fast moved beyond that to consider all sorts of questions in the time of pre-pregnancy, a broad term which might incorporate trying to conceive, infertility, early pregnancy and the politics of childlessness. Women and men, married, single, gay or straight have babies or don’t and this project is about and for them all, to connect their griefs, joys and frustrations to an extraordinary history.
So, I am working through archival materials and will be writing about them here and elsewhere but I am also working with an artist, Anna Burel, who is interested in some similar questions and has been working for a long time to think about the female body and particularly under medical scrutiny. Together we are thinking about how contemporary visual art, as well as writing of different kinds, might be a way to gather insight into historic materials for use in our own lives.
So check back here to see how our project is developing. There will also be ways for you to get involved, should you want to. In particular, we are hoping to incorporate people’s reflections and reactions to our project into the progress of its research. Let me know (email: email@example.com) if you’d like to be added to my mailing list about events and other project news or leave a comment below to tell us what you think.
Featured Image: detail from Le livre de Lancelot du Lac, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library MS 229, fol. 31r.
Details: Day – 16th May 2016; Time – 6-7.30; Place – 43 Gordon Square. Sign up for a free place through Birkbeck Arts Week
Isabel Davis and Anna Burel will introduce their project, Conceiving Histories, and present a curious case study: an unusual and short-lived late eighteenth-century fashion for ‘The Pad’, which remodelled the female figure to simulate pregnancy.
We will be looking at some contemporary literary texts and satirical cartoons which celebrated or satirised this strange, prosthetic addition.
The fashion is satirised here in a cartoon by Isaac Cruikshank in which women choose their pad – to simulate different lengths of gestation or, in the case of the lady in the far right of the image, twins – from a boutique:
Come and find out about and even try on ‘The Pad’.
This is a free public event but space is limited, so do book a place.