Organized Session

Embodied Science: The Marginalized Body as an Agent of Scientific and Social Transformation

Organizer

Sara Ray

University of Pennsylvania

Chair

Wangui Muigai

Brandeis University

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Session Abstract

This panel asks how bodies have shaped scientific visions of social futures. A legal case in eighteenth-century Portugal in which the defendant's "perfect" female anatomy confounded medical explanations of her same-sex desires; an early nineteenth century Dutch teratologist and anatomical collector formulating charity policy for the country's "crippled" citizens; experiences of debility animating colonial expansion in the Gulf South through the therapeutic promises of tropical botany; early twentieth century Black intellectuals using eugenics to imagine a liberated future. Through these cases, we examine how bodies- marked by intersections of gender, race, queerness, and disability- have shaped the ambitions of new social orders. Our papers center historically marginalized bodies as sites of resistance whose physical traits shaped scientific knowledge and social futures. In these cases, the body is a central site of evidence for scientific projects ranging from the embryological to the botanical, the anatomical to the eugenic.
The body was a powerful tool for imagining and instantiating particular social ambitions during the transformative periods discussed in these papers. Through their narratives about, respectively, queer resistance and racial uplift, Marcos and Nuriddin interrogate the role of scientific knowledge in articulating the obligations and opportunities of reproduction. LaFay and Ray examine the connections between medical authority, debility or bodily difference, and the project of statebuilding. As these bodies interfaced with traditional systems of power, they shaped narratives about societal goals, constraints, and hierarchies. Spanning several centuries and geographic contexts, this panel seeks to center the historically marginalized body as an agent of scientific and social transformation. In doing so, our goal is to demonstrate the utility of a focus on embodied experience to a wide-range of subjects in the histories of science and medicine

Presenter 1

Perfect, and without Defect: Medicalizing the Body & the Sciences of Same-Sex Desire

Patrícia Martins Marcos

University of California San Diego

Abstract

Histories of same-sex desire frequently center the extraordinary, the pathological, and the criminal. Due
to the enduring appeal of such stock scripts, queerness- whether instantiated in intersex bodies, non-
binary ambiguous gender performance, or in experiences of same-sex desire- appears systematically
reified as non-normative. This paper seeks to turn that historiographical canon on its head by writing the history of queer sex/gender embodiment from the point of view of perfection. I make this case by
discussing Maria Duran's trial before the Portuguese Inquisition (1741-1743). In February of 1741,
Maria, who was Catalan and had recently relocated to the Convento do Paraíso in Évora (southern Portugal), suddenly found herself in the Inquisition's jail in Lisbon. According to the official charge,
Maria had "a pact with the Devil." The "Devil," however turned out to be a surrogate for Maria's
engagement in "carnal copulation with various women." Judging from the documentation, what most
confounded inquisitors was not Maria's sexuality, but the misalignment between her perfectly female
body and her male comportment and demeanor. Maria's anatomy was therefore not destiny. She was
neither hermaphrodite, nor a two-sexed body, but "perfect, and without defect."
Over three years of proceedings, Maria's body became a boundary object: a contested site where humoral and modern, medical and theological, physical and metaphysical somatic epistemologies and ontologies collided. Surgeons, the Royal Anatomist, and the Queen's midwife were called to observe, examine, and inspect her body in the unfruitful hope of finding any somatic sign of hermaphroditism or masculinity. This case emblematizes the paradoxes of a body medicalized within an institutional and epistemic space shaped by Scholasticism and theology. I argue that Maria became a target of Inquisitorial disciplining because she engaged in non-reproductive sex, in spite of her medically attested "perfect body."

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Presenter 2

Embryology and Armenzorg: Teratological Expertise in the Formation of Dutch Disability Policy, 1815-1850

Sara Ray

University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

In a grand, patrician home along Amsterdam's Herengracht canal, there was a room full of monsters. This was the teratological collection of Willem Vrolik who sought to use fetal abnormalities to map the
mysterious operations of the formative force that guided embryological development. Vrolik's collection was famous throughout Europe and Vrolik himself had the career of an wealthy scientific gentleman: he was well connected around the continent and was a crucial contributor to early nineteenth century embryology and, especially, its subfield of teratology. This paper brings Vrolik's scientific study of monstrosity into conversation with his governmental work on charity policy during the formation of the Dutch constitutional republic between 1815-1850.
Vrolik built up his famous museum during a period of marked economic struggle in Amsterdam that saw over 60% of the city's citizens dependent on charitable institutions. Charity was especially crucial for citizens whose bodies excluded them from the workforce; those who might, today, be described as disabled. Though embryology was far afield from social charity, Vrolik's reputation as an expert on bodily abnormality meant government officials sought his guidance when it came to "crippled" citizens: what did bodily difference mean and whose responsibility was it?
Vrolik's teratological expertise influenced a paternalistic approach to disability policy that centered
medical authority. This paper thus brings a history of embryology into conversation with a history of the
medical model of disability. Vrolik's museum of abnormal fetuses endowed him with widely-recognized
authority to describe, explain, and rationalize bodies whose place in nature was poorly understood; it was this expertise that state officials sought in determining how non-normative bodies fit into a new Dutch social order. This case offers insight into the relationship between bodily difference, scientific expertise, and ideals of citizenship

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Presenter 3

Tropical Botany and Debilitating Climates in the Nineteenth Century Gulf South

Elaine LaFay

Rutgers State University

Abstract

Botanical knowledge was central to nineteenth-century understandings of health and place. The landscape contained an array of pathological and curative specimens, all of which relentlessly engaged the body. In the tropical and semi-tropical climates of the Gulf South, speculators, physicians, and patients experimented with tropical vegetation in an attempt to entice U.S. citizens, especially invalids, to Florida, where they argued patients would heal in the climate while doing botanical labor. Natural knowledge thus existed at the center of a colonization scheme.
The drive to eradicate expressions of non-white autonomy in the Gulf South and repopulate it with white
citizens framed the impulse to understand, cultivate, and, in the parlance of colonial discourse, "improve" local vegetation. European and North American colonizers believed tropical climates to be sickly and degenerate, though increasingly in the nineteenth-century, an array of observers began to highlight the healing effects of the tropics. Speculators seized on the opportunity, and began a project of establishing health resorts in tropical or partially tropical locales to capitalize on the potentially endless stream of invalid health seeking. Often, this imperative was driven by their own experiences with debility from the climate. Investors and speculators relied on botanical trade with nearby tropical countries to fuel early experiments with tropical plants on American soil. The practice of botany, the pursuit of which was tied to concepts of "light, healthy labor," was a central part of this endeavor. This paper explores the social, political, and environmental challenges that these speculators faced as they sought to exploit tropical plants and climates for economic and therapeutic gain. In doing so, it joins recent work that explores the connections between natural knowledge and settler colonialism in the United States and circum-Caribbean more broadly.

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Presenter 4

Black Eugenics and the Struggle for Racial Equality, 1900-1940

Ayah Nuriddin

Johns Hopkins University

Abstract

As part of a multi-faceted approach to struggles for racial justice, African Americans in the first half of
the twentieth century embraced the possibilities of eugenics for achieving racial equality. I argue that they mobilized what I call black eugenics, which I define as a hereditarian approach to racial uplift that
emphasized social reform, public health, and reproductive control as strategies of biological racial
improvement. It emerges from a longer tradition of black political organizing for racial equality and the
beginnings of black engagement with medicine and science as a result of greater educational opportunities after Reconstruction.
This paper will examine two ways in which African Americans understood the centrality of the body to
mobilizing different visions of black eugenics. First, African Americans theorized about the existence and nature of racial differences, and the ways that racial characteristics functioned in the physical body. Second, African Americans used this knowledge to build the foundation for eugenic interventions to address the problems facing the race. These interventions included eugenic marriage, public health work, and compulsory sterilization. African American physicians, scholars, and reformers believed that knowledge of racial science and eugenic interventions could improve their racial stock, and thus socially and biologically uplift the race.

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