Poisoned Pregnancy: Research and Advocacy on Teratogens and Birth Defects in Mid-Century America

Heather Dron
History and Social Medicine
UC San Francisco

The dissertation addresses the evolving history of lay and expert views of environmental exposures during pregnancy in mid-century America. The project explores the relationships between scientists and practicing obstetricians seeking to create a coherent and legible field of research on birth defects, by studying and grouping a diverse range of syndromes evident at, or shortly after, birth. In particular, the focus of the project rests in the rising concern for environmental (i.e. non-hereditary) causes of infant disability among professional groups and the way that professional activities performed under the auspices of preventing birth defects affected both the way this environment was defined (as a workplace, a womb, or a global concern) and the status of women’s health citizenship. The project argues that the environmentalist understandings of the etiology of congenital malformation were intimately linked to research and public concern over iatrogenic and recreational drug exposures, such as thalidomide, diethylstilbestrol, and LSD, among others. Mothers and other lay advocates were also interested in the origins of fetal disability and in avoiding birth defects. From the 1940s, there was an active dialogue about the potential harms that pregnant women faced, illuminated by modern science. Using case studies, the examination traces the ways in which efforts to have a ‘normal’ child unaffected by environmental (or genetic) factors took on more salience and the how the womb was increasingly constructed as the site of exposure and a source of potential abnormality as specialized clinicians increasingly focused on the fetus as a patient and teratologists probed the etiology of congenital malformations.