Childbirth became seen as something that could only be fully understood by a medical expert — and of course, that expert would almost always be male.

Jennifer Kosmin

Childbirth may be as old as humanity, but Western medicine brought changes to the process.

"For millennia, childbirth fell under the provenance of women," says Professor Jennifer Kosmin, history. "Then, over the course of the 18th century, it became seen as something that could only be fully understood by a medical expert — and of course, that expert would almost always be male."

She explores the medicalization of childbirth in Sex, Race & Science, a course on Western medicine's shifting balance of power from the late 18th century to the present. The class also covers colonial medicine, the racialization of disease, Kinsey's interpretation of heterosexuality, and the impact of genomic mapping on the understandings of race, disease and sex. "Basically, we examine the larger social implications and uses of scientific knowledge," says Kosmin, who studies the history and cultural implications of Western medicine in terms of authority, power and legitimacy.

Another of her classes examines history through the lens of death and disease. "One thing we consider is the discovery of saints' relics," she says. "What did it mean to have bones, believed to have magical properties, discovered in your village?" The course also explores the cultural impacts of the Black Death, non-Western concepts of disease, the mass deaths and disfigurements of the American Civil War, and the public dissections of criminals in Italy in the 1700s.

"Believe it or not, these were often festive events that coincided with the Carnival season," Kosmin explains. "Bodily dissection toed the line of normal propriety and morality, but it also represented a kind of dramatic spectacle, and there was a lot of interest when public anatomies were held. They not only transgressed boundaries, but also revealed the mysteries of life."

She requires her students to read historical medical texts, consider anatomical engravings of artists like Andreas Vesalius, and pay special attention to the life-sized wax models of the human body that 18th-century doctors used for practice. "This was especially important in terms of women's health," she says. "Since men had no direct experience with childbirth, wax models allowed them to hone their skills."

Kosmin hopes to one day take students to La Specola, a museum in Florence known for its collection of wax anatomical models. "Closer to home, I'd like to take them to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia," she says. "It has a fabulous collection of medical and anatomical specimens in the style of a 19th-century 'cabinet museum.' It's something anyone with an interest in anatomy should experience."

Posted Oct. 7, 2015