Colonizing the Womb: How William Hunter’s Enlightenment-Era Gynecological Images Redefined Personhood

Jessica M.E. Kirwan //

Pictures are received information. We need no formal education to ‘get the message.’ The message is instantaneous.
-Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.

In June, I suggested that some of the foundational beliefs about fetal personhood that dominate today’s abortion debate are influenced by William Hunter’s 1774 obstetrical text, Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, which represented pregnant women as beasts alienated from their fetuses, and women’s contributions to reproduction as inferior to that of the fetus. In showing passive, fragmented, dissected women alongside whole, active, live-appearing fetuses, Hunter joined an ongoing philosophical discussion concerning women’s roles as mothers and citizens, a discussion that was especially lively at the end of the eighteenth century after the rise in popularity of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1763), which argued that women’s domestic and sexual roles were primarily in serving the nation.  That Hunter could help redefine the natural functions of the female body according to social and cultural desires was possible because of the familiarity of the format he used to represent the female form. More specifically, when not resembling quadrupeds, Hunter’s depictions of female fragments resembled maps.

Plates III and XVIII (above) serve as examples of this argument. Fragments of women are shown as isolated islands afloat a vast and empty sea. Each landmass is plotted out, the terrain a diagram labeled for future reference and ideation. In The Grammar of Visual Design, Kress and van Leeuwen offer that, “Diagrams, maps and charts are most often found in contexts that offer the kind of knowledge which, in our culture, it mostly highly values—objective, dispassionate knowledge, ostensibly free of emotive involvement and subjectivity. Hence the ‘demand’ [on the reader] is rare in these visual genres” (126). By representing anatomical images in map format, readers arrive at the text with preconceived notions and biases about how to read the images. Non-specialist readers, especially, would have gained little knowledge from reading the Latin descriptions of the images, after all. Medical illustrations, like maps, depend on viewers’ recall of existing knowledge to create new knowledge. William Hunter argued in the preface to Gravid Uterus:

Anatomical figures are made in two very different ways; one is the simple portrait, in which the object is represented exactly as it was seen; the other is a representation of the object under such circumstances as were not actually seen, but conceived in the imagination.

He draws a distinction between the figure that is “a close representation of nature” and that which is “a figure of fancy, made up perhaps from a variety of studies after Nature,” or what we today might refer to as simulacra. Further, he tells us, an “advantage of the first is, that it represents what was actually seen, it carries the mark of truth, and it becomes almost as infallible as the object itself.” Hunter believed his work was a “faith representation of what was actually seen,” although, perhaps admitting subjectivity in all representation, also that “the judgment of the public will probably be divided.”

Put in Kress and van Leeuwen’s terms, then, Hunter ‘demands’ little prior knowledge from his reader. Yet in that he chose to exhibit the female anatomy in fragments speaks to the imagination and subjectivity at display in these illustrations. The simultaneous pairing of existing and new knowledge and of objective and subjective representations requires the reader to interpret the new information presented, which opens the door to resignification of the object represented (in this case, the female reproductive system).

As Ludmilla Jordanova has pointed out, “Hunter himself employed a topographical analogy, and considerably developed it by likening the medical practitioner to a general, and the human body to a country under civil war or invasion” (190). Hunter said in 1784,

To do his duty with full advantage, a general…must make himself master of the Anatomy and Physiology, as we may call it, of the country. He may be said to be master of the Anatomy of the country, when he knows the figure, dimension, situation, and connection…as the lakes, rivers, marshes, mountains, precipices, plains, woods, roads, passes, fords, towns, fortifications, etc.

Hunter Plate IX

Plate IX (below) is particularly interesting in that a body of water bifurcates the island. Whether the represented pelvis is expecting a child or has just expelled one is unclear, but the reader of this map understands that this physiological specimen is used to harbor a child.

Through his emphasis on familiarity with the terrain, Hunter’s description is reminiscent of Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532). As maps are requisite to the formation of the nation, so anatomical illustrations are requisite to demarcating the boundaries of personhood. Determining such boundaries and defining the rights of the fetus and mother were as central a concern at the end of the Enlightenment era as they are today, especially in the Empire’s quest to unite an increasingly growing and diverse population across vastly separate landmasses. Consider, for example, that by the end of the eighteenth century British men employed by the East India Company and residing in India were increasingly adopting local customs, including marrying local women (sometimes several). As these British men passed away, defining the rights of the Anglo-Indian children of these unions in comparison to those of their Indian mothers (as inheritors) became an increasingly complex dilemma for the Empire.  Hunter’s anatomical illustrations centering on human reproduction could contribute to the evolving needs of the nation by helping define what was considered the naturally divined personhood of mothers and children. 

In representing human reproduction through floating land masses, William Hunter marked the female body as a floating signifier, allowing what seemed like a natural and purposefully occurring state of being to take on new meaning according to nationalistic desires. In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argues that, “nationalism has to be understood by aligning it, not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which—as well as against which—it came into being” (12). From its description of natural sex roles to its regulation of medical professionals who administrated to the medical and moral needs of the empire’s citizens, Enlightenment-era medicine under the British Empire relied on readers’ familiarity with maps to not only manage how sexuality and reproduction were visualized but also how personhood was defined.

References

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities, 3rd Ed. New York: Verso, 2006. Print.

Hunter, William. The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures. Birmingham: John Baskerville, 1774. Web. Accessed on: March 30, 2015. http://film.wellcome.ac.uk:15151/MaryToft/F_438a.pdf.

Hunter, William Two Introductory Lectures Delivered by Dr. William Hunter, his Last Course of Anatomical Lectures, at his Theatre in Windmill-Street. Printed by order of the Trustees, for J. Johnson: London, 1784. Electronic.

Jordanova, Ludmilla. Nature Displays: Gender, Science and Medicine 1760 – 1820. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Inc, 1999. Print.

Kress, Gunter and van Leeuwen, Theo. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. New York: Routledge, 1996.

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