technologies of health

Yum. A new book just arrived in the mail today. I love the smell and feel of a new book, and I freely confess that I’m likely never to warm to ereaders, or ireaders, or areaders, or whatever they are… a new book is all about anticipation and I can’t wait to dive in.

This one’s been waiting for me for a while. It’s Joan Sherwood’s Infection of the Innocents: Wet Nurses, Infants and Syphilis in France, 1780-1900. It tells the story of doctors’ attempts to clear up syphilis in newborns…by using the wet nurse as a form of medical technology. In an experiment originating at Paris’ Vaugirard Hospital, qualified wet nurses were given mercury (one of the only known treatments for syphilis) which then passed, in diluted form, through their breast milk and from there, into the mouths and bodies of the babies they were suckling. It’s a fascinating window into the history of breastfeeding, showcasing how medicine came to use the lactating female body to further its own goals, often at the expense of impoverished wet nurses. In Sherwood’s words:

“The Vaugirard experiment used poor women as medical instruments in a procedure with dangerous implications for their health and well-being. It can be seen as an earl example of human experimentation in medical practice.” (Sherwood, Infection of the Innocents, 160).


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