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Doctors, motherhood and insanity of childbirth in Victorian Britain

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This lecture will explore the close and complex relationship between mental disorder and childbirth in the treatment of what in the early nineteenth century came to be called ‘puerperal insanity’. The disorder was described as severe, dangerous and, because its victims challenged domestic order and ideals of motherhood, a threat to the sanctity of the Victorian home. Yet, at the same time, therapeutics were typically patient and expectant, with little medical intervention. Even women admitted to asylums were typically subjected to mild curative regimes based largely around the principles of ‘moral management’. Doctors, in describing what they feared was becoming a prevalent disorder, referred extensively to the physical and mental challenges of pregnancy, birth and childrearing, and in so doing problematised in unexpected ways the ideals of maternity and domestic ideology. Explanations for the onset of puerperal insanity were drawn, not just from notions of female vulnerability and biology, but also from a broad set of moral, social and environmental frameworks. Using especially the case notes of private and asylum practice, I shall argue that rather than solidly supporting traditional female roles and duties, doctors questioned them, presenting motherhood as often disappointing, demanding and overwhelming.

Reading: ‘Languages and landscapes of emotion: motherhood and puerperal insanity in the nineteenth century’, in Fay Bound (ed.), Medicine and Emotion (Palgrave, 2006)

There will be tea before the lecture, at 4.15pm in Seminar Room 1, and a drinks reception afterwards, at 6pm in Seminar Room 1.

This talk is part of the Wellcome Lecture in the History of Medicine series.

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