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Sex, Disease and Fertility in History

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This conference, conducted under the aegis of the current 5-year Wellcome Strategic Award to the History and Philosophy of Science Department, ‘Generation to Reproduction’, has been designed to capitalise on an interdisciplinary approach. It aims to further our understanding of the role of the venereal diseases in influencing the fertility of populations in the past. It will do so by bringing together medical, social and cultural historians with scholars from other disciplines with a knowledge of the biology, epidemiology and demography of the venereal diseases and their likely impact on fertility in the pre-HIV-AIDs era.

Demographic history has been a major knowledge growth area, internationally, during the last five decades or so and Cambridge’s History Faculty and Geography Department have both played and continue to play a leading role in this inter-disciplinary field. Understandings of the inter-related processes of fertility and mortality lie at the centre of the study of demographic change. While much has been explored and learned, there remains a paucity of specifically demographic study of the relationship between diseases and fertility, in relation to accounts of the many large-scale demographic changes that have been documented. The principal diseases that are known to affect fertility – both directly and through their culturally-mediated impact on sexual behaviour- are the sexually-transmitted diseases of gonorrhoea and syphilis, although a range of other such diseases, notably Chlamydia, may also have been significant in the past. The conference is convened to focus primarily on this relationship between sex, disease and fertility, although it will also be interested in other diseases affecting fertility either directly or through their consequences for sexual behaviour.

Scientific, medical practitioner and lay understandings of the ‘venereal’ diseases have each been subject to great variation and change in different societies throughout the past. These changing understandings have influenced, in different ways, both cultural values and social and sexual behaviour, with consequences also for fertility and reproduction. Therefore this conference will also be hearing from scholars with research that can throw light on this aspect of the relationship between disease, sex and fertility.

It is the first conference in a long time- quite probably ever- to address this issue and is likely to produce important new insights and to identify future research proposals, drawing from an interdisciplinary dialogue between biology and history.

This talk is part of the CRASSH series.

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