living tools

Finally managed to find time to read Joan Sherwood’s fascinating new book on the intertwined history of syphilis and wet nursing in France. Filled with lots of details, many numbers and graphs, it offers great insight into the wet nursing industry (thus building on Sussman’s work from the 1980s) but takes it much further, by showing just how deeply implicated wet nursing was in the medical industry of the period. The wet nurse was, for all intents and purposes, an instrument of medical technology – a “living tool” whose body “served as instruments for the advancement of medical science” (75).

At an ethical level, this is grotesque. And as one schooled in Foucauldian relations of power, these ethical challenges are insurmountable. But what I find most intriguing about this study is Sherwood’s ability to bring the perspectives of doctors into conversation with the responses of nurses, thus providing me, as a reader, with a window into the nature of that encounter. Power, as we see here, does not always flow one way. It is complex and frustratingly amorphous. Thus, while doctors dictated certain behaviours and procedures and families engaged in subterfuge in order to hire nurses, it is abundantly clear that many of the nurses in question resisted and refused. Some escaped. Some were cranky. Some misbehaved. One went mad. And others, in the nineteenth century, launched legal challenges. In other words, many weren’t willing to play the game and when force to do so, were not afraid to assert their rights to fair and just treatment. The politics of lactation – and the role of the female body in the production of milk – are fascinating and could keep me occupied for years.

Time to reread Nathoo and Ostry’s The One Best Way?: Breastfeeding History, Politics, and Policy in Canada


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