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Nick Hopwood, Professor of History of Science and Medicine, Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Nick Hopwood is Professor of History of Science and Medicine in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and an editor of Reproduction: Antiquity to the Present Day (Cambridge, 2018). He will be speaking in the panel discussion When was reproduction invented? on 17th October at 6-7.30pm. Nick organised the event and his fellow panellists are all University of Cambridge experts: Rebecca Flemming, Senior Lecturer in Classics (Ancient History), Susan Golombok, Professor of Family Research and Lauren Kassell, Professor of History of Science and Medicine. The Chair is Jim Secord, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science.


Question: How did you come to study the history of science and medicine?

Nick Hopwood: In 1991 I was a postdoctoral researcher in developmental biology, a fascinating field in which knowledge of embryos was being transformed. But I’d always been pulled by arts subjects as well and I worried I was losing sight of the bigger picture. So I took a year out to do a master’s in history of science and medicine. I enjoyed it so much I decided to stay.


Q: Why did you choose to focus on reproduction?

NH: My own research has mostly been about embryos, which intrigue me even more as a historian then they did when I was a biologist. Today, we’re used to finding images of embryos and fetuses all over the place, but 250 years ago they were almost nowhere to be seen. I’m interested in how doctors and patients, researchers, collectors and artists made embryos objects we can look at, compare and discuss. I want to know how developmental series of progressively more advanced specimens came to stand for the course of a pregnancy. And I’m curious about how, in debates over abortion and embryo research, those images were transformed into symbols of hope and of fear. This has led me to take a broader approach to the history of embryology than was usual when I started out - more engaged with medicine and more focused on communication among experts and with large audiences. From there, it was a small step to exploring more widely still. Hence the history of reproduction.

Reproduction matters because it’s so central to life. It encompasses intimate experiences, be they of sex, pregnancy, childbirth, contraception, abortion, sterilisation or infertility. And it extends to national and international policies, most prominently about population, migration and the environment. The historians Janet Golden and Laura Briggs exaggerated when they argued respectively that ‘babies made us modern’ and that ‘all politics became reproductive politics’ - but only a bit.


Q: What is the aim of your book, Reproduction: Antiquity to the Present Day?

NH: Historians of reproduction have done a great deal of exciting, engaged and eminent work, but this hasn’t been joined up. The history of reproduction hasn’t quite been a field. Scholars have worked on the centuries they knew best and only a few have dared to take long-term views. The main frameworks go back to a ferment of activity in the 1970s. So the book grew out of a desire to take stock and move things on. A group of us here in Cambridge - the other Principal Investigators were Rebecca Flemming, the late John Forrester, Martin Johnson, Peter Murray Jones, Lauren Kassell, Jim Secord, Richard Smith and Simon Szreter - collaborated on a Wellcome-funded project to synthesise histories of reproduction between classical antiquity and the present day. After many seminars, workshops and conferences, the book (edited by Rebecca, Lauren and me) gave us another chance to invite colleagues to help investigate continuity and change over the long term. Aiming to reach students and general readers, we kept the chapters short and accessible and Cambridge University Press let us have lots of pictures. Ninety pages of colour plates cover topics from an ancient Egyptian fertility figurine to cloned frogs.


Q: When do you think reproduction as we now know it was formed?

NH: If you approach reproduction as a biologist, then of course it goes back even before humans evolved. But as an approach to knowledge and practice reproduction has a shorter history. It’s often dated to the mid-eighteenth century, when the word ‘reproduction’ began to replace the old ‘generation’. ‘Generation’ was a broad framework for like begetting like, for how more animals, plants and even minerals were made through processes that people compared to the everyday activities of brewing and baking. ‘Reproduction’ is narrower and more abstract and technical; it refers to the capacity shared by living organisms, and them alone, to produce more of their kind.

But everything didn’t change suddenly in 1749. It took much of the nineteenth century for ‘reproduction’ to become established, alongside new techniques for managing populations, breeding livestock for improvement and disciplines such as obstetrics. Only in the decades around 1900, when most industrialised countries went through a transition from large to nuclear families, did talk about reproduction tie together the various domains. Only in the mid-twentieth century did reproduction move centre stage. The shift from generation to reproduction lasted several human generations - and, by the way, we still use the word ‘generation’ in that sense. But if we stand back and look over several millennia, the timescale is rather short.


Q: What do you hope for from the Festival event?

NH: Like the book, the event is about opening up a conversation. The question ‘When was reproduction invented?’ is intended to highlight what we can learn from different periods of change. Each of the panellists will make an initial statement and then our chair, Jim Secord, will invite discussion. I’ve said why I put the invention, or better, the making of reproduction in the very long nineteenth century. It’ll be my job to press that claim on the day. As an ancient historian, Rebecca Flemming is likely to argue that we should pay more attention to what she calls the invention of generation in the fifth century BCE, and its expansion, consolidation and revision in succeeding centuries. I imagine that Lauren Kassell will talk about the medieval and early modern periods, when new voices - of women and artisans alongside physicians and professors - made their presence felt in discussions of generation from households to courtrooms. And I suspect that Susan Golombok might concentrate on the extent to which technologies of conception have or have not changed families in the last few decades. But we won’t know till October 17th, and it will be interesting to see how the audience responds!


Q: What continuity do you see in attitudes to reproduction now and in the past?

NH: It’s a great point that our question should also prompt reflection on what has stayed the same. After several decades when historians tended to seize on evidence for radical discontinuity, we are opening our eyes to continuity again. For example, influential histories have presented the medical treatment of infertility as a modern invention, but contributors to the book argue that doctors have been involved in helping some people have healthy heirs since antiquity. New in the twentieth century was the way that the search for children began to drive projects of medical consumption on a significant scale.

One major element of continuity is in the questions asked. What do men and women contribute to reproduction? How can we produce healthy children? Am I pregnant? How does the environment affect fertility? Such questions are old - you can find versions on papyrus and parchment - but their form and audiences have changed as much as the answers. Here again, awareness of continuity should sensitise us to more subtle change.


Q: How is history relevant to some of today's urgent challenges with regard to reproduction?

NH: Around the world, far too many people are unable to have and to raise the children they want; far too many lack access to safe, legal contraception and abortion. One of the most urgent challenges is the deaths of hundreds of thousands of women and millions of babies at the time of childbirth every year. Biomedical interventions tend to be highly focused, and sometimes rightly so. But there is a need to stand back and look more broadly at economics, society and politics. The history of childbirth in a country is an essential guide to what is ultimately about power. Similarly, any proposal to reduce population growth - often said to be the single most important contributor to the climate crisis - must take account of the legacies of population control in discrimination against the poor and non-white. That historical consciousness should help reproductive justice and environmental justice go together.

History is always there already, so the real choice is what kind of history to include. Some aspect of reproduction is in the news every day, and by the nature of news it can all seem new. But reporters, like scientists, clinicians and patients, typically frame what’s happening in terms of historic achievements or abuses, recent progress or worrying contrasts with how things used to be. We appeal to history all the time, because it allows us to compare in a long view. So let’s pool expertise to make that history robust and acknowledge that our interests shape the ways we use the past.


Q: Has our greater understanding of embryo development changed our attitudes to reproduction?

NH: Yes, though changed attitudes to reproduction have also shaped understandings of developing embryos. On the one hand, people now take for granted that serial images of embryos and fetuses represent the course of a pregnancy. They’re taught in school and a pregnant woman can follow them on her phone. By contrast, in earlier centuries the surest sign of a child-to-come was when the woman herself felt it move inside. Opinion has divided sharply over the extent to which, with this huge increase in the authority of science and medicine, pregnant women have lost or gained control.

So on the other hand, those embryo and fetal images have become lightning rods for controversy. Consider the battles over the research on human embryos that was made possible by culture after in vitro fertilisation in the 1970s. Or think of the use of images by opponents of the liberalisation of the anti-abortion laws that began in the 1960s. The abortion debate now dominates reproductive politics globally, with anti-abortionists appealing to science as well as sacred texts. History can’t bridge the divides; it can clarify how we got here and help us grasp what is at stake.


Q: Why is there a need for a multidisciplinary approach to reproduction?

NH: Reproduction is so rich that no one discipline can capture it all. We have to draw on several sets of disciplinary skills. This should produce more powerful perspectives and more integrated responses to the challenges we face. That won’t be easy. It can be hard even to marshal the resources of the various historical subdisciplines, though the book goes some way towards doing that. I take heart from my sense that we are in perhaps the most exhilarating moment for studies of reproduction since the 1970s. More and more of us are recognising that our fields need dialogue to reach their potential and if the insights are to address current crises and dilemmas.


Q: What are the main aims of the Strategic Research Initiative on Reproduction?

NH: The University launched the SRI on Reproduction a year ago. It aims to tackle the challenges by facilitating closer engagement across all schools: biology and clinical medicine, the arts, humanities and social sciences, even technology. Cambridge has an unrivalled concentration of expertise in reproductive studies, with several established research groups. We expect the SRI to take our networking to a higher level, spark cross-disciplinary projects, attract funding and advertise our strengths.