Monday, February 01, 2016

Augustus K. Gardner: The Conjugal Relationships as regards Personal Health...

Unidentified married couple from Iowa, circa 1890

Augustus K. Gardner, MD: The Conjugal Relationships
as regards
Personal Health and Hereditary Well-Being
Practically Treated

Gardner was Professor of Clinical Midwifery in New York Medical College. This book was written some time in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century; my copy was the Eighth Edition (1918). It was widely popular, or at any rate widely distributed, no doubt in part because of recommendations like this, in Hall’s Journal of Health:

Such important information is given in this book in reference to the more healthful bringing up of our daughters, morally and physically, and the relation of the sexes, that no parent will fail of reading every line in the book with the most absorbing interest. It is a boon to womankind.

The title is, I feel, rather misleading. It is not a medical book but a polemical one which, like some later works of popular science, is chiefly concerned with stating conclusions whose bases cannot be examined. Gardner draws energetically but unspecifically on his own authority and that of his (male) fellows; on what “the history  of every day confirms”, on what is “undeniable”, what “should require but a moment’s consideration to convince any one”.

And these are his conclusions.

- that the pampered modern woman is in physical decline
- that excessive sex is debilitating
- that continence is not physically harmful
- that all other methods of avoiding procreation (except the safe period) are both sinful and unhealthy; for example conjugal onanism, the use of tegumentary contraception, etc.
- that it is shameful and dangerous for the old to have sexual relations
- that it is sinful and dangerous to indulge in “personal pollution”
- that abortion is murder of one’s own flesh and blood
- that the polka and all other fashionable habits of the modern young woman are exceedingly dangerous
- that tampering with natural procreation produces hereditary weaknesses in children.

In short, they fully support recent statements of Presbyterian and other clergymen, whom Gardner wholeheartedly admires.

These statements are no crude utterances of rhapsodists, thoughtless demagogues, or ambitious, charlatan sensationists. They are the carefully expressed opinions of thoughtful and conscientious men, aiming to repress wrong-doing, to promote virtue, to guard against “the sins which do so easily beset us”.

[To anyone who studies late nineteenth-century patriarchalism, the word “guard” is soon seen to carry an immense mythical weight. It evokes men on the outposts of the Roman Empire, perhaps Regulus on Hadrian’s Wall.]

Gardner is a poor writer, and his own natural wooliness is exacerbated by a deliberate policy of – well, let him say it:

Verbiage has been sometimes expressly selected instead of distinct statements, and a roundabout sentence has often been used as the substitute for an expression which might offend sensitive minds. Especial care, it will be observed, has been used not to admit anything which might administer to the depraved appetites of the prurient-minded, and, above all, not to make any statement of facts, with such details, as might be perverted from their intended purpose to serve unworthy or improper ends.

(This is in itself quite roundabout, but you get the point.) Accordingly, such passages as this one, near the end of the chapter on “Personal Pollution”, are open for anyone to interpret.

The sensuous intemperance is sufficiently to be reprobated when its aliment is drawn from vigour of physical energy, the heightened imagination, the mind pampered by the ordinary stimulation of the aesthetic as delineated in marble, spread out on the glowing canvas, where the great artist Guido portrays Io, with rapturous eye upturned, as if to meet halfway the king of the gods; or by the perusal of the lubricious writings of the day, whose foul impurity is too often gilded by genius – or by the public exposure of the cheap charms of the modern meretricious stage. But when even these coarse excitants for depraved minds – dead to all ordinary sensations – when these fail and recourse is had to super-stimulation of a more gross, mediate and materialistic character, when nature is set aside and imaginative bestialities are foully substituted – when woman degrades the nuptial couch by copying the foulness of the bagnio – then farewell to female purity, to virtue, to any thing worthy!

Gardner considers “delicacy” highly important, and of special value to women, as he explains in reference to the question of sex during menstruation (Gardner finds Moses a sensible guide on this matter, and quotes Leviticus at length).

In fact the woman when she has her periods takes the greatest care to conceal it from all eyes. She is affected instinctively, we will not say willingly, in her dignity. She considers her condition as a blot or an infirmity; and although her modesty – the most incendiary of the female virtues – has been spared by the omnipotence of her husband, she blushes to herself at the tribute she is compelled to pay to nature. To constrain her in this condition, to submit to conjugal caresses, is evidently to do violence to what is most respectable in her nature; it is to cast her down from her pedestal; it is to rob her of the prestige which the graces of her sex assure to her. Love has need of poetry, and accommodates itself illy to the gross realities of the animal life. Do not seek to contradict such legitimate repugnance. The first step in this path infallibly leads to ruptures the most to be regretted.

But it is not only at the menstrual epoch that the wife should conceal from the husband the details of the lower necessities to which she, as well as he, is subject; we would desire that she should endeavour never entirely to lay aside her natural charms of modesty and delicacy even in the intimacy of the bedchamber. She will gain more than she can think in constancy and love – the most cruel enemies of which come from the destruction of the illusions and from satiety.

More than one married woman will find in these lines, if she discovers all their meaning, an explanation of the inexplicable weariness of her husband...

To illustrate Gardner’s stately authoritativeness I take a couple of sentences from the remarks about contraception:

We have at our disposition numerous facts which rigorously prove the disastrous influence of abnormal coitus to the woman, but we think it useless to publish them. All practitioners have more or less observed them, and it will only be necessary for them to call upon their memories to supply what our silence leaves.

We may, we trust, be pardoned for remarking, upon the artifices imagined to prevent fecundation, that there is in them an immense danger, of incalculable limits. We do not fear to be contradicted or taxed with exaggeration in elevating them into the proportions of a true calamity.

Both “delicacy” and “forthrightness” may thus excuse the absence of evidence. (He does not use the word “contraception”, and perhaps it wasn’t yet current – sometimes the existence of a term implies social acceptance).

The function of the book is most clearly brought out in the chapter about abortion, which presents a sequence of stories of spiralling horror.

A lady who one November came to me “to get rid of a baby because her husband was going to Europe in the spring, and she wanted to go with him and couldn’t be bothered by a young one”, failing to enlist me in this nefarious scheme, finally found a – I was going to say, physician – a somebody... I was called to her some weeks afterwards, and she was almost exhausted with cellulitis and pyæmia. Her husband sailed for Liverpool in June without her, as she had not been able to sit up for nearly six months... she is a miserable invalid... She had then three children; her oldest son was accidentally drowned, and her two daughters died of scarlet fever while the family were spending a winter at Matanzas for the mother’s health ... the result of that disastrous inflammation is the disorganisation of both ovaries, and she is inevitably childless...

A lady determined not to have any more children, went to a professed abortionist, and he attempted to effect the desired end by violence. With a pointed instrument the attempt was again and again made, but without the looked-for result. So vigorously was the effort made, that, astonished at no result being obtained, the individual stated that there must be some mistake, that the lady could not be pregnant... in due process of time the woman was delivered of an infant, shockingly mutilated, with one eye entirely put out, and the brain so injured that this otherwise robust child was entirely wanting in ordinary sense.... Ten years, face to face with this poor idiot, whose imbecility was her direct work...

At the end of the chapter, Gardner appeals to the clergy of America, “because they are the great moral lever-power of the country ... I have endeavoured to put the physical argument in their hands ....” And such anecdotes have of course circulated ever since.

I don’t want to suggest that these terrible stories are folklore in the sense of being untrue, though the latter one seems all too like those nightmares in which we frenziedly try to kill someone who merely becomes more and more mutilated and alive. But Gardner, who was I suppose an immensely experienced, genuinely conscientious, and highly respected man of science, did carry a lot of folklore around in his head, unwittingly forming his judgments.

I might, if I had been inclined, have made different quotations that allow us a little more sense of fellow-feeling; as when he praises sunlight and physical exercise, or argues that women are by nature as strong as men. His intentions were good, but what he thought he saw was what he already credited. 

This is apparent in his comments on those listless, pasty, degenerate beings who have been onanists, or physically excessive, or used contraception; and he is also a firm believer in the inheritance of factors related to the time of conception.

[E]very one has been able to make the observation, a more or less considerable number of times, that children, the issue of old men, are habitually marked by a serious and sad air... As they grow up, their features take on more and more the senile character, so much so that every one remarks it, and the world regards it as a natural thing... Our attention has for many years been fixed on this point, and we can affirm that the greater part of the offspring are weak, torpid, lymphatic, if not scrofulous, and do not promise a long career.

[Was this folk-belief in Dickens’ mind when he wrote Dombey and Son?]

we do know, that children begotten by men of general good habits, who may be at this particular time much affected by intoxicating drink, do inherit marked evidences of its consequences in their dispositions....

The general enthusiasm attendant upon Jenny Lind’s musical tour in this country, did, to my own knowledge, markedly affect the children generated by parents full of the musical fervour of that period, and these children are now all over our country, developing a musical taste very uncommon before in this land.


[Parents] should sedulously avoid connections during those periods when procreation is most likely, at times of physical debility when recovering from disease, worn by business cares, gloomy and despondent, oppressed by grief...

I would like to know – but I don’t – whether Gardner’s book would have been considered cranky and “Creationist” at the time it was written. I suspect that to nearly all its readers it would have looked like – and would therefore have been – science.


Views on Gardner’s topics are always in a state of flux. In writing the above I made many assumptions about a liberal consensus that large parts of the world would reject. The idea that unrestrained sex tends to be debilitating and harmful to health becomes unexpectedly prominent in Germaine Greer’s work from Sex and Destiny onwards. (The same book demonstrates in vast detail how beliefs about human reproduction continue to be riddled with folklore, especially among experts. There may be something intrinsic about the miracle of new individuals coming into existence that strikes at our logical foundations; at any rate, it seems to turn the brains of intelligent people to mush.)  



At 10:51 am, Blogger Vincent said...

In my teens I came across a similar book addressed to young men. It is just possible it was left by someone intentionally, knowing my voracious reading habits. Its general tenor is similar to that of Gardner's book, but it's particularly addressed to young soldiers and sailors as the author was a retired naval surgeon (“How you doctors do specialize these days!” to quote a line from Doctor in the House).

To scare the reader away from casual relationships, grisly details were offered of gonorrhoea, syphilis and various kinds of chancre. But onanism was condemned as well: the reasons offered being largely or entirely folkloric. I don't recall any mention of homosexual activity. Perhaps it was hinted in such circumlocution that I didn't notice, but I doubt that.

But the same positive themes were eulogized as in Gardner: continence, healthfulness, sporting activity, clear eyes---implying that polluted behaviour might be reflected in the face and visible to those who themselves had clear eyes and steadfast hearts.

Did it influence me? Only to the extent of further broadening my literary horizons & theoretical knowledge of the world that you get from books, along with spiritualist books (plenty in our house), Samuel Smiles' Self-Help, & much curious lore from the previous century.

Perhaps a sense of perspective, such that I see through the liberal fads of today as something to be gently mocked as we do Augustus Gardner---some time after you and I are both gone.

At 2:59 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

The mockery is worthwhile, I hope, in the spirit of "Do Not Forget"; as you say, there are always lessons about today. But one of the defects of looking at an old book without troubling to research the wider context (as only an academic would have the resources to do) is that I can't pretend to give a fair account of Gardner; true, he appears to me hidebound, dogmatic and prejudiced; but for all I know, in the context of the 1890s his book may have been an advancement of knowledge and done much good. (I suspect not, though: the press reviews are far too positive!)


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