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Monstrous Births and Medical Networks: Debates over Forensic Evidence, Generation Theory, and Obstetrical Authority in France, ca. 1780-1815

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In France between 1780 and 1815, doctors opened a broad correspondence with medical faculties and public officials about foetal anomalies ("monstrosities"). Institutional and legal reforms forced doctors to encounter monstrous births with greater frequency, and they responded by developing new ideas about heredity and embryology to explain malformations to public officials. Though doctors achieved consensus on pathogenesis, they struggled to apply these ideas in forensic cases, especially with doubtful sex. Medical networks simultaneously allowed doctors to explore obstetrical techniques, as licensing regulations forced practitioners into emotional encounters with child anomalies. Doctors thus developed a new ethics for treating monstrosities, viewing them as pathological specimens, forensic objects, and obstetrical tragedies.

Affiliations: 1: Department of History, University of Idaho, Box 443175, Moscow, Idaho 83844–3175, USA


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