Practices and Social Relations of Obstetrical Objects

Inspired by feminist science studies on ontology (such as new materialisms), this working group will investigate the theory, practices, and social relations that produce specific obstetrical objects in a variety of spaces. We shift focus away from theoretical conceptions of the reproductive body and objects to how these objects were enacted in practice in different situations. In doing so, we seek to uncover the instability of objects and the reproductive body. This approach requires paying particular attention to the practices producing and surrounding these objects. Each of the eight workshops, therefore, will center on an obstetrical object in order to interrogate its instability and entanglement with the reproductive body in different contexts. We encourage conversations that explore the material semiotics of obstetrical objects—the entanglements of materiality, discourse, practices, and the social. 
Meetings are held monthly on second Thursdays at 11:00 AM Eastern Time during the 2020-2021 academic year.

Upcoming Meetings

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  • Thursday, February 11, 2021 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EST


  • Thursday, March 11, 2021 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EST


  • Thursday, April 8, 2021 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EDT


  • Thursday, May 13, 2021 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EDT


Past Meetings

  • January 14, 2021

    "How to undo the pelvis: Hugo Sellheim’s experimental obstetrical research and the enactment of a new birthing body"
    By: Martina Schlünder, research scholar Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
    At the turn of the twentieth century, German obstetrician Hugo Sellheim (1871-1936) embarked upon a research project on the laws of birth mechanics. In a comprehensive experimental program, he tried to find out what kind of mechanical and expulsive forces were at work in the birthing process. In my presentation I argue that studying Sellheim’s experimental practices offers an excellent lens to examine the epistemic shifts that obstetrics underwent in the early twentieth century when it moved from an anatomical to a physiological thought style, leaving the focus on the pelvis-skull ratio behind, instead studying the impact of mechanical laws on soft tissues, its content of water and thus its flexibility. Through Sellheim’s extensive experimental work new tools like birthing objects and machines as well as new concepts came into being, and at the end a new birthing body emerged not defined by the anatomy of mother and child, rather composed and defined by a set of mechanical forces. Sellheim aimed at establishing a new norm, a physiological, standard procedure of delivery based on experimental, scientific knowledge that also captured all of its possible deviations, turning treatments from improvised and experience-based interventions into standards based on scientific norms. I analyze Sellheim’s experimental system from a perspective of sociomateriality (aka relational ontology or praxeography), which emphasizes the world-making capacities of (scientific) practices. Thus, matter e.g. obstetrical tools and bodies are not understood as given, they are effects of practices and emerge and disappear with their respective practices that enact them.

    Martina Schlünder (MD/PhD) is a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin, Germany) with a research focus on the history of the life science, medicine and the technoscientific turn in the history of reproduction in the 20th and 21st centuries.

  • December 10, 2020

    Reproduction and Representation: Visualizing the Maternal Body, 1880–1900
    By: Jessica M. Dandona

    This paper comprises a close look at the visual culture of medicine in the late 19thcentury, investigating how physicians in three early centers of medical training—Paris, Edinburgh, and Philadelphia—conceptualized the female reproductive body in pictorial terms. Created during a time of growing interest in public health and widespread anxiety over rising infant mortality, these representations define the ideal female body as youthful, fertile, and above all productive: the female body is, without exception, a pregnant body. I will look at three examples of works produced in this period, each of which explores the materiality of paper--at once ubiquitous, fragile, malleable, and portable--as a vehicle for representing reproduction.

    Jessica M. Dandona earned her B.A. from Brown University in French Studies and the History of Art and Architecture and her Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in Art History, with a specialization in 19th-century French art and visual culture. She is currently professor of art history at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where she teaches courses on art and empire, the body in art and visual culture, and modern art. Dr. Dandona has been the recipient of research grants from the Fulbright Association, the Boston Medical Library, the American Philosophical Society, the Huntington Library, and other institutions. Her current book project, The Transparent Woman: Medical Visualities in Fin-de-Siècle Europe and the United States, 1880–1900, examines the pictorial and material dimensions of teaching anatomy and midwifery at the end of the 19th century.

  • November 12, 2020

    Flap Anatomies
    By Margaret Carlyle and Marcia D. Nichols
    Professors Carlyle and Nichols will lead the group through a discussion of interactive anatomies, particularly those relating to the "science of women."
    Margaret Carlyle is an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, where she teaches in the history of science and technology. Margaret is working on two book projects: one on the history of Enlightenment anatomy and the other on the history of midwifery technologies.
    Marcia D. Nichols is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Rochester, where she teaches literature and gender studies. Marcia is in the final stages of her first book project, Fixing Women: The Birth of Obstetrics and Gynecology in Britain and America, which will be forthcoming from the University of California Medical Humanities Press. She is also collaborating with a biosciences colleague on a Bakhtian exploration of contemporary pedagogies of scientific discourse.

  • October 8, 2020

    A Tale of Two Stories: Unearthing the 1939 Dickinson-Belskie Birth Series Sculptures & the Process of Sharing Them With Many Different Worlds
    By: Rosemarie Holz, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
    In this 2-part presentation, Rose Holz will spend most of her time discussing the little-known but hugely influential 1939 Dickinson-Belskie Birth Series, a series of sculptures created for the 1939-1940 World's Fair in order to educate lay and medical audiences the mechanics of in-utero human development from fertilization through delivery. Not only did these sculptures shape modern obstetrical education for aspiring practitioners and educate lay individuals in matters of pregnancy -- giving rise to modern understandings of pregnancy radically different from those which held sway in the 1800s -- but in so doing they articulated over three decades in advance the language and imagery that would become the hallmarks of the modern pro-life movement, a curious irony given that Dickinson himself was a staunch proponent of the provision of abortion. Thus embedded in this story is the subjectivity of the knowledge we create about our bodies. Also embedded in it, however, are striking new ways to discuss the abortion debate in ways that bridge the pro-choice/pro-life divide.

    Holz will then conclude by turning to more methodological considerations, in this case about the process of publication. Drawing upon her experiences publishing this story in two different academic settings, she will open the conversation to what it's like to translate the stories we tell to different academic audiences while at the same time remaining true to one's own voice and desire to reach beyond the walls of the academy.

  • September 10, 2020

    Methodologies: From Material Culture to Practices

Group Conveners


  • scottiecpm's picture

    Scottie Buehler

    Scottie Buehler (CPM, PhD) is a midwife turned historian of medicine. After earning her BA in Sociology and Women and Gender Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, she became licensed as a Certified Professional Midwife and founded and operated a homebirth midwifery practice in Austin, Texas. She received her Ph.D. in history with a concentration in the history of science, technology, and medicine from UCLA. Scottie’s current book project applies practice and object-oriented methodologies to the study of midwifery training programs across the French Atlantic in the eighteenth century. She was a Research Fellow in the Consortium in 2019.


  • MSchlunder's picture

    Martina Schlünder

    Martina Schlünder (MD/PhD) is a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany. From 2015-18 she held a Marie Curie Fellowship at the Technoscience Research Unit at Women and Gender Studies Institute at University of Toronto with a project on the technoscientific turn in the history of reproduction in the 20th and 21st centuries. In the working group she is particularly interested in the exploration of the material culture of experimental systems in obstetrical research at the beginning of the 20th century (in Germany) when obstetrics turned away from anatomical based research and started to conceptualize delivery as a physiological process.


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