It would be satisfying to look at the Mary Toft affair and to shake our learned, modern heads at the credulity of our ancestors, and to find it incredible that anyone could even imagine for a second that there could be even a grain of truth in the claims of a unlettered peasant woman that she had given birth to rabbits.
That is, until we take a look around us and consider some of the nonsense that our peers readily countenance as the indisputable truth, be it the belief that our destiny is governed by barren rocks and balls of gas in the sky, that alien beings will traverse the vast distances of space with the express intention of buzzing a carload of teenagers on a dirt road in mid-western America or that there is any validity whatsoever in the efficacy of diluted water as a medical treatment.
|My opinion on such matters|
You can be sure if a documentary turned up on late night television that showed a woman giving birth to rabbits then someone, somewhere, would be nodding along and thinking that there could be something in all this. Maternal impression was a valid hypothesis in medical circles in the past.
If a dog startled a pregnant woman, it was perfectly possible that her new-born could have a dog’s head; if she was scared by a fish, expect piscine attributes in the baby.
It was an understandable explanation for a monstrous birth, something that was common enough in the shallower end of the gene pools of rural hamlets.
|John Maubray - The Female Physician - 1724|
Maubray’s The Female Physician (1724) discusses maternal impression in frightening detail (as mentioned earlier), and he was not alone in his views. Other doctors were not so credulous, and in the fallout of the Toft affair, Maubray was specifically taken to task for his beliefs.
|A Letter from a Male Physician - 1726|
A Letter from a Male Physician (1726) pulls no punches from the outset. In it, the anonymous author (in reality, James Douglas, the noted anatomist) questions Maubray’s judgement when he cites a case from Johannes Schenk’s Monstrorum Historia Memorabilis (1609),
|Schenk - Monstrorum - 1609|
in which a 42-year-old woman gives birth to 365 children at once, and how he accepts this as a fact, or how he plainly sets out how women may conceive with the presence of a man, or may even become pregnant when,
“…being debarr'd the Enjoyment of her Paramour, hug him tacitely in her Bofom, and embrace him heartily, however abfent, in her Mind.”
Given that Maubray openly espouses such nonsense, it follows that when he goes out looking for miracles and wonders he is most assuredly going to find them – he is, the author thinks,
“… fitter for a Toad-eater and a Mountebank, than a surgeon or a man-midwife,”
and he concludes by saying,
“Consequently, it is as impossible for women to generate and bring forth rabbits, as it is for rabbits to generate and bring forth women.”
Another attack on Maubray’s veracity came in The Sooterkin Dissected (1726), again anonymous but again written by James Douglas, which begins with the author describing how he went into a bookseller’s and spies Maubray’s Female Physician, which he is convinced must be an excellent book as God is mentioned in the very first chapter. So, he buys it and takes it home, where he reads about de suyger, called the sooterkin or moldiwarp, and begins to wonder why Maubray does not describe this marvel in greater detail.
|De Suyger ?|
Was it scaly or hairy, did it only shriek or did it also speak, how big was it, what colour was it, and so forth? Perplexed, the author takes himself to Royal Society in London, but they have never heard of such a thing, nor has the Royal Academy of Science in Paris. The Learned Men of Holland to whom Maubray says he has spoken regarding this creature are also consulted, but they pronounce it to be a ‘vulgar error’.
|Frederik Ruysch - Practical Observations - 1751|
The great Dutch anatomist and obstetrician Frederik Ruysch was consulted, and in sixty-two years of medical practice and dissection he had never found one, nor had any of the Dutch midwives that were asked about the matter. In a marvellous piece of logical demolition, the whole notion of the sooterkin is destroyed and Maubray revealed as either a fool or a deliberate fraud.
|Nathaniel St Andre|
Nathaniel St André’s reputation was also called into question. He had published his A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets [sic] on December 3rd, just days before the fraud was exposed, and had staked his professional reputation on his confirmation of Toft’s claims. He attempted to recover whatever he could by publishing a retraction of his claims but the damage had already been done.
|The Anatomist Dissected - 1727|
A piece entitled The Anatomist Dissected satirised his gullibility, asking if he would have done the same if a letter had arrived from Battersea claiming that a woman had delivered five cucumbers, and calling into question the common sense of the entire medical community. The story circulated that the only reason that he had been given his position in the Royal Household was he was able to converse with George I in his native German, (it was said that George was unable to speak English, which was untrue, certainly in the latter years of his reign).
|St Andre - A Short Narrative - 1727|
Things were made substantially worse when St André treated the MP Samuel Molyneux, (who had gone with him on his first visit to Godalming in 1726), for an epileptic fit in 1728, a treatment which failed, with Molyneux dying on the very night that St André eloped with his wife. Accusations were made that St André had deliberately poisoned Molyneux, and St André responded with a lawsuit which, although clearing him, resulted in even more unwanted publicity. He withdrew from public life with his reputation in tatters.