From ‘Fructification’ to ‘Insemination’: Nomenclature and the Practice of Artificial Insemination
Since at least the eighteenth century, physicians, scientists, and patients have experimented with the idea of achieving pregnancy by intervening in the act of sex ‘artificially’. As they have done so, they have debated the scientific principles of reproduction, the boundaries of practice in the emerging medical specialties of gynaecology and urology, the significance of heredity, and the meanings of marriage and parenthood. This chapter explores the early history of artificial insemination (AI) between 1860 and 1950 in North America, Britain, and France. It adopts an unusual perspective in tracing this history through the lens of nomenclature, from ‘artificial fructification’ to ‘artificial insemination’, and combines quantitative data on the prevalence of particular terminologies with sources in literature, biomedicine, natural philosophy, and the popular press to ask: What is in a name? In other words, how can language (biomedical and lay) be used as a window into shifting debates over what this technology of conception meant to scientists, physicians, and society?
Artificial insemination, by whatever name, has historically been characterized by secrecy, silence, and the suppression of records.1 The shame of infertility and fears about custody, adultery, and medical liability meant that for most of the history of the practice, physicians consciously destroyed records of inseminations and sperm donations. Until very recently, parents of children conceived via artificial insemination contributed to this culture of silence. As one North American couple put it when speaking of donor insemination
B. Gurtler (*)
© The Author(s) 2017
G. Davis, T. Loughran (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52080-7_5
in the late twentieth century: ‘From the minute she was born, we never mentioned it to each other. We won’t tell her - or our friends and family - because there’s no way she can find that father. It is our secret: It will go with us to the grave’.2 The strong trend towards secrecy and silence perhaps explains why so few histories have directly tackled the topic of artificial insemination, although there is a growing body of anthropological and sociological literature on more contemporary uses of artificial insemination and kinship. This chapter aims to fill some of these gaps in historical knowledge.
Analysis of nomenclature can be a useful methodological tool to interrogate historical sources and to build a greater understanding ofthe social and cultural contexts which governed attitudes towards infertility in past times and places. In this quest, new digital humanities tools can be invaluable in enabling scholars to analyse the content of textual sources within the context of broader terminological shifts revealed by quantitative analysis. Google Ngram Viewer provides a unique way to explore the frequency of words used in millions of texts across a time span of more than 200 years (see Figs. 1, 2 and 3). The Ngram Viewer searches Google Books for sources printed between 1800 and 2012, and charts the frequency of word or phrase. This allows scholars to broadly visualize shifts in the use of ‘artificial insemination’ and related terms across two centuries. These big data tools are far from perfect. They merely show how often a word is used, not how a word is being deployed or interpreted, and regardless of the size of the data set it may not provide a representative sample. (For example, Google Books represents only 4 per cent of publications ever published, and the kinds of works available depend on Google’s initial digitization selection criteria). Furthermore, Ngram cannot differentiate between acronyms, like the use of AI for artificial insemination and its use for artificial intelligence; and, of course, it cannot tell us why
Fig. 1 Ngram of Incidence of Terms Test Tube Baby/Babies, Artificial Fertilization/ Impregnation/Fecundation/Fructification, 1800-2008]. (Source: Ngram Culturomics Search: http://books.google.com/ngrams [Accessed 6 December 2016]. For the purposes of reproduction in this volume, the results of these Ngram searches have been adapted into black-and-white line illustrations by Kirsty Harding.)
Fig. 2 Ngram of Incidence of Terms In Vitro Fertilization, IVF, Artificial Insemination, and Donor Insemination, 1800-2008]. (Source: Ngram Culturomics Search: http://books.google.com/ngrams [Accessed 6 December 2016]. For the purposes of reproduction in this volume, the results of these Ngram searches have been adapted into black-and-white line illustrations by Kirsty Harding.)
Fig. 3 Ngram of Incidence of Terms AID, AIH, Heterologous and Homologous Insemination, 1935-2008]. (Source: Ngram Culturomics Search: http://books.goo gle.com/ngrams [Accessed 6 December 2016]. For the purposes of reproduction in this volume, the results of these Ngram searches have been adapted into black-and- white line illustrations by Kirsty Harding.)
changes in terminology occur.3 Nevertheless, Ngram is able to demonstrate a rough trend across a large corpus of literature very well. In this chapter, I use it in close conversation with a wide range of sources including scientific and medical journals, textbooks, and papers as well as newspapers, film, radio, popular journals, and personal letters in order to investigate the how of these terms.
This chapter traces shifts in the nomenclature deployed in debates about artificial insemination as the technology was increasingly employed as a treatment for infertility from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. These terminological shifts reveal the changing nature of medical debates about the practice and their relation to broader social concerns about gender, the family, and reproduction. The chapter begins by analysing the messiness of the gendered and scientific politics embedded in the naming of the procedure in nineteenth- century France and North America, when scientists deployed the terms ‘artificial fructification’, ‘artificial fertilization’, ‘artificial fecundation’, and ‘artificial impregnation’. Then it turns to the unexpected material relationships and meanings that underlay the rise of a popular terminology of ‘test tube babies’ in the early twentieth century. The final section returns to biomedical nomenclature and examines how the scientific study of sperm and increasing use of donor sperm in the procedure together led to the stabilization of the nomenclature around the term ‘artificial insemination’ (by husband and by donor) at mid-century. Ultimately, the chapter aims to demonstrate that while the actual act of human artificial insemination changed little over the course of its early history, the contextual factors in which it was named, defined, understood, used, and produced underwent radical changes.4 From ‘artificial fructification’ to the more modern definition and practice of ‘artificial insemination’, the cultural and biomedical politics of naming were integrally bound to the movement of knowledge between scientific and lay audiences, shifting definitions of (un)reproductive bodies, and moral judgements on the appropriate social context of reproduction.