I’ve mentioned maternal impression several times over the past few days and, to my mind at least, it’s a subject that deserves a little further examination. If we go all the way back to Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, we find, in Book VIII, a notion that female bears give birth to formless blobs that are then licked into bear-shapes by the mother.
This idea, that a foetus (or even a new-born), is able to be altered in some way, lies at the heart of maternal impression, which is the belief that an external sensation on the mother can have an effect on either the physiology and/or psychology of her child. In the majority of cases, it is the malign results that are mentioned, not unsurprisingly maybe, as we look for an explanation of birth defects. I’ll return to benign angle a little later, but let’s stick with the unpleasant stuff for now.
The general pattern appears to be that should a pregnant woman receive a shock of some sort, or if she dwells overly on a subject, it sometimes happens that some aspect of whatever it was that preyed on the mother’s mind will be passed on to the child.
The shock tends to come from an encounter with an animal of some sort, an accident happening either to the mother or someone she has seen, or from a morbid obsession in the mother’s mind.
In Studies in the Psychology of Sex (Vol 5), Havelock Ellis lists, amongst others, a woman who found her pet rabbit being savaged by a cat and which had had its paws gnawed off, her child being born with deformed hands and feet, a woman who was kicked by a cow she was milking whose child had a growth resembling an udder protruding from the base of the skull.
Another mother who was terrified by an escaped bullock and whose still-born child had a head shaped like that of a cow, a woman who assisted her husband in cropping the ears of a sow whose child was born without ear-lobes or the case of a woman who became fixated by a novel read to her by her husband which featured a character with a supernumerary digit and whose child was born with an extra, rudimentary finger on one hand, (see extract below from British Medical Journal, March 1895, reporting this same last case).
These are not isolated incidents – physicians used the high numbers of reported instances of maternal impression as proof of its existence. It was an established fact. For example, in November 1898, the quarterly meeting of the Isle of Wight District of the British Medical Association were addressed by Dr Godfrey, who spoke about maternal impressions and presented a variety of statistical evidence that seemed to indicate that there was a very small correlation between the cause and the effects. Nevertheless,
“Dr. Godfrey arrived at the practical conclusion that defects traceable to maternal impression were sufficiently numerous and sufficiently serious in character to necessitate the avoidance by any pregnant woman of all violent emotional disturbances, especially those of an unpleasant character.”
The obverse of all this is, of course, is that if a mother was exposed to positive influences, the benefits would be passed onto the child. Common sense would appear to bear this out – a happy mother should, by rights, give birth to a happy baby, which has to be a Good Thing for all concerned. Even today, you will find people who will gladly play whale songs or Mozart to their foetus, in the belief that the said sprog will soak up the aural goodness in their intra-uterine relaxation pod, and if that’s what they choose to believe, well good luck to them.
|Goodness Only Knows ...|
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the eugenicists took this idea to their hearts and set about breeding their assorted master races with a great, big dose of added foetal edification. A favourite metaphor of this idealistic bunch was that of the fruit tree, which could give good fruit on one branch and crabbed, sour fruit on another branch, and everyone was at a loss to explain why. And if society followed this analogy, a similar remedy was surely the answer, so the crabbed, sour fruit of humanity needed to be cut away, pruned out, eliminated.
One such advocate of this ‘nature not nurture’ approach was C J Bayer, whose book Maternal Impressions (1897), reassuringly has the line “Not a Word or Line to Shock the Most Sensitive”, on the title page.
|C J Bayer - Maternal Impressions - 1897|
It all depends how you define ‘shock’, I suppose. Take this, from Bayer’s chapter Education Does Not Make the Man,
“Education should not only protect society from general ignorance, but also from that ignorance which is displayed in the production of children who are criminals, insane, and deformed.”
Now, call me Most Sensitive if you wish, but I am shocked, shocked I tell you, when criminals, the insane and the deformed can happily be lumped into one handy category of undesirables. That, and it’s all the fault of the parents. I’ll bring you back to the eugenicists on another day. If anything will make you roll your eyes and despair for the future of the human race, they more or less take the biscuit. Anyway, back to birth defects.
A Dr Johnston of Birkenhead wrote about a particularly poignant case in the British Medical Journal of March 1885. Mrs A T, aged 42, married for nineteen years and already the mother of ten children, was expecting again and consulted her doctor as she approached her confinement, and was told that she may need to prepare herself for twins. She was unperturbed, commenting only that she did not care providing that they were not ‘Siamese’.
At the lying-in hospital, she haemorrhaged and Dr Johnston was sent for, and he oversaw the delivery. The head presented itself and Johnston began to use forceps for the delivery, but encountered an outgrowth as the shoulders emerged. A second child was connected to the first, from the neck to a common umbilicus, both were male and both still-born, but in all other respects they were normal. The mother, when the circumstances were explained to her, said that early in her pregnancy she had been to see the Two-Headed Nightingale and had fainted at the sight. Three days after the delivery, this poor woman committed suicide by jumping from a window.
Tomorrow, who, or what, on earth is the Two-Headed Nightingale?