Concepts of Race, Embryology, and "Monstrous" Development in 19th-Century US Medical Science

Friday, January 4, 2019: 9:10 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton)
Miriam Rich, Harvard University
This paper explores defective reproduction as a site of race-making in the nineteenth-century U.S., showing how physicians and scientists marshaled new embryological frameworks of “monstrous” development to advance claims about racial hierarchy and degeneration. Nineteenth-century American physicians and scientists routinely invoked the term “monster” in efforts to collect, classify, and theorize the bodies of infants born with extreme physical anomalies. Drawing on medical and scientific publications, case histories, and preserved specimen collections, this paper will examine physicians’ interest in anencephaly, a congenital anomaly that featured prominently in studies of medical “monstrosity” (a terminally severe condition, anencephaly occurs when neural development is disrupted at a very early embryologic stage, resulting in the absence of most of the brain). Within nineteenth-century American medical science, monstrous anencephalic bodies were linked to concepts of race through a shared framework of development: just as monstrous fetuses reflected an arrest or deviation in the course of embryological development, allegedly “inferior” races reflected an arrest or deviation in the course of human racial descent. In this theorization, monstrosity gained new specificity as a way for Euro-American theorists to articulate the nature of racial inferiority. Physicians and scientists also employed concepts of monstrous development to describe the precise mechanism of racial degeneration. Anencephaly was cast as the embodied endpoint of such degeneration, conceptualized as a slide down a hierarchical spectrum of human racial development towards a more imperfect form. Medical discourse on monstrosity intertwined with burgeoning cultural fears about white Anglo-American decline: the figure of the monster, understood as a racial “reversion” produced by white and nonwhite mothers alike, exposed critical vulnerabilities of the racial order. Here, defective reproduction was configured as a key site of racial meaning-making within nineteenth-century medical science, preceding the seminal eugenic rhetoric that would later come to pervade American science, culture, and politics.