September 14, 2009

New Exhibit Tells the Story of Human Struggles to Control Fertility


Humans have privately struggled throughout time to control or enhance their fertility. Yet private behavior depends upon an array of public circumstances.

"Virtue, Vice, and Contraband: A History of Contraception in America"—a new exhibit at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University—examines 200 years of the history of contraception in the United States.

To launch the exhibit on Thursday, September 17, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, the author of Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in 19th Century America, will give the Zverina Lecture at 6 p.m. in the Powell Room of Allen Medical Library. The event is free and open to the public and precedes the ribbon-cutting ceremony and reception that opens the exhibit. For more information, call (216) 368-3648.

This exhibit depicts the social and cultural climate that influenced birth control decisions in this country, says James Edmonson, chief curator at the Dittrick. The Dittrick staff with guest curator Jimmy Wilkinson Meyer from The College of Wooster designed the exhibit.

"The museum now has more of a public health focus by providing information that may be awkward for some individuals to talk about, "says Edmonson. Viewing the American contraception story may help answer some questions— and provoke more questions.

The exhibit reveals a longstanding ignorance of essential facts of human conception. For example, a woman’s ovulation time was not discovered until the 1930s by two doctors, Kyusaku Ogino in Japan and Hermann Knaus in Austria. Before and after this finding, desperate women went to great length to prevent pregnancies. The exhibit explores less well known (and dangerous) methods such as douching with Lysol or eating poisonous herbs like pennyroyal, as well as conventional means such as the IUD or the birth control pill.

"A remarkable body of literature was available to assist newly married couples and others," says Edmonson. "These books were not displayed publicly, on the coffee table, but hidden in a private place."

He cites examples such as Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Young Married People (1832) and the popular 18th century book on anatomy, reproduction and childbirth, Aristotle’s Masterpiece.

In addition to literature, the exhibit draws upon and incorporates the vast collection of contraception devices donated to the university in 2005 by Percy Skuy. The Canadian collector had amassed the world’s largest collections of such devices over the course of four decades.

The exhibit starts in the early 1800s, before Anthony Comstock lobbied Congress to pass the Comstock Act of 1873, responding to what he viewed as a moral decline after the Civil War.

"It was a watershed year. The Comstock Act made it illegal to sell contraceptives or literature about contraception through the mail," says Edmonson.

While Congress legally barred contraception, a black market for such products and literature flourished. Comstock went undercover to search out and turn in violators of his law in his crusade to stamp out what he defined as smut and obscenity.

In the early 20th century, women’s advocate Margaret Sanger opened a birth control clinic and research institute, flaunting the Comstock Law. Eventually her efforts evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

The exhibition highlights some ancient methods of birth control and presents information about the influence of religion on contraception.

"We wanted to have a multi-faceted look at the topic of contraception," Edmonson says.

Future plans are to expand this exhibit with a companion book, a kiosk where additional information can be accessed on the birth control collection and an extensive online site available worldwide.

The Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays (closed weekends). For information, visit The public is invited to attend the lecture on September 17, at 6 p.m. in the Allen Medical Library and the exhibit’s opening reception. RSVP to attend by calling (216) 368-3648.

For more information contact Susan Griffith, 216.368.1004.

Posted by: Kimyette Finley, September 14, 2009 02:13 PM | News Topics: Collaborations/Partnerships, Events, features, news

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