1st Edition

Midwifery, Obstetrics and the Rise of Gynaecology The Uses of a Sixteenth-Century Compendium

By Helen King Copyright 2007
    238 Pages
    by Routledge

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    The Gynaeciorum libri, the 'Books on [the diseases of] women,' a compendium of ancient and contemporary texts on gynaecology, is the inspiration for this intensive exploration of the origins of a subfield of medicine. This collection was first published in 1566, with a second edition in 1586/8 and a third, running to 1097 folio pages, in 1597. While examining the origins of the compendium, Helen King here concentrates on its reception, looking at a range of different uses of the book in the history of medicine from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Looking at the competition and collaboration among different groups of men involved in childbirth, and between men and women, she demonstrates that arguments about history were as important as arguments about the merits of different designs of forceps. She focuses on the eighteenth century, when the 'man-midwife' William Smellie found his competence to practise challenged on the grounds of his allegedly inadequate grasp of the history of medicine. In his lectures, Smellie remade the 'father of medicine', Hippocrates, as the 'father of midwifery'. The close study of these texts results in a fresh perspective on Thomas Laqueur's model of the defeat of the one-sex body in the eighteenth century, and on the origins of gynaecology more generally. King argues that there were three occasions in the history of western medicine on which it was claimed that women's difference from men was so extensive that they required a separate branch of medicine: the fifth century BC, and the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. By looking at all three occasions together, and by tracing the links not only between ancient Greek ideas and their Renaissance rediscovery, but also between the Renaissance compendium and its later owners, King analyzes how the claim of female 'difference' was shaped by specific social and cultural conditions. Midwifery, Obstetrics and the Rise of Gynaecology makes a genuine contribution not only to the history of medicine and its subfield of gynaecology, but also to gender and cultural studies.

    Contents: Introduction:towards gynaecology; Prefacing women: owners and users; Medical history and obstetric practice in William Smellie; Guilty of 'male-practice'? Burton's attack on Smellie; Delighting in a 'bit of antiquity': Sir James Young Simpson; Conclusion; Bibliography; Index.


    Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at The Open University, UK. Her previous publications include Hippocrates' Woman and The Disease of Virgins.

    'Midwifery, Obstetrics and the Rise of Gynaecology examines major developments in women’s medicine from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth, focusing particularly on France and England. King brings to light a huge but largely neglected body of work on gynaecology and obstetrics - most of which was male-authored - that built upon the recently rediscovered writings of the ancient Hippocratics and fused them with knowledge derived from newer anatomical techniques and traditions of clinical practice. King’s book is a model of erudition, an encyclopedic synthesis of the development of gynaecological writing and publishing, and a radical challenge to traditional assumptions that male involvement in women’s medicine was a novelty of the eighteenth century. It is, in short, the best book ever written on the history of early modern women’s medicine.' Monica H. Green, Arizona State University, and author of Making Women's Medicine Masculine: The Rise of Male Authority in Premodern Gynaecology ’Writing clearly and with infectious enthusiasm for her project, King seeks to answer four key questions in the history of medicine... King exhaustively checks every detail that might shed light on her itemized questions... King has delivered a persuasive and indispensable work for specialists in the field that unassumingly promotes the joy of scholarship.’ Journal of the History of Medicine ’Packed with revealing conclusions and fresh perspectives, King's book is a substantial contribution to the current reappraisal of obstetrics as a gateway to the history of gender.’ Renaissance Quarterly ’... the scholarly precision with which [Helen King] approaches her materials is already evident in the introductory chapter.’ Women's History Magazine ’Helen King has written a meticulously researched, erudite book that provides a fascinating overview of the development of attitudes toward women and women's health from antiquity through the nineteenth century.