‘A Tragedy as Old as History’: Medical Responses to Infertility and Artificial Insemination by Donor in 1950s Britain

Gayle Davis


The history of sexuality in late modern Britain has, in recent decades, become an intellectually and methodologically vibrant field, with the concept of sexuality deployed as a prism through which a rich range of social, cultural, and political issues have been explored.[1] Much of this scholarship has centred upon England, and in particular upon the metropolitan attitudes and behaviours of London, which are unlikely to have been representative of England as a whole, let alone Britain. Historiographical progress was slightly later in advancing north of the Border,[2] where scholars have recognized the need to take into account Scotland’s separate traditions in law and local government, as well as an arguably distinctive civic and sexual culture where religion appears to have continued to exercise considerable social significance.[3]

In both countries, much illuminating historical work has been conducted specifically into reproductive health. The increasing availability of safe and effective means of fertility control - birth control and abortion - and the social politics surrounding it have comprised an important focus.[4] The history of infertility in late modern Britain has, by comparison, been underexplored. Naomi Pfeffer’s 1993 monograph The Stork and the Syringe remains the most comprehensive work on the subject, and provides an important introduction to medical responses to infertility, set within their wider social and political context.5 However, assisted reproduction - the use of techniques such as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization to enhance fertility - has elicited heated debate from a range of other scholars, including social anthropologists and sociologists, and more recently from historians. Interesting themes include the extent to which such ‘unnatural’ interventions subvert the legal and moral integrity of the family unit,6 and their application as a strategy for positive eugenic improvement.7

Such was the concern that infertility and, more specifically, its treatment by artificial insemination engendered by the mid-twentieth century that a Departmental Committee was appointed to investigate the issue. The terms of reference of the 1958 Departmental Committee on Human Artificial Insemination, otherwise known as the Feversham Committee since it was chaired by Lord Feversham, were:

To enquire into the existing practice of human artificial insemination and its legal consequences; and to consider whether, taking account of the interests of individuals involved and of society as a whole, any change in the law is necessary or desirable.8

The immediate impetus for the establishment of this Committee was a Scottish divorce action in the Court of Session, MacLennan v. MacLennan, which considered whether a woman who had had artificial insemination by donor (AID) without her husband’s consent could be said to have committed adultery (media responses to this legal case are discussed in depth in Hayley Andrew’s contribution to this volume).9 The rich vein of information embedded within the proceedings of the Feversham Committee has not hitherto been adequately explored by historians seeking to chart the history of infertility. The wide range of medical, legal, and religious witnesses approached to give evidence, and the voluminous written and oral testimony received, offer rich insights into medical thinking and practice in 1950s Britain, and into the complex social politics and ethical anxieties surrounding infertility and its treatment by artificial insemination at this time.

This chapter will focus in particular upon the testimony supplied to the Feversham Committee by medical witnesses in order to explore how doctors perceived, characterized, and treated the infertile couple in 1950s Britain. It will confine itself to their discussions of AID, the issue with which the Committee was ‘mainly’ concerned ‘since A.I.H. appear[ed] to raise very few problems’.10 Thus, artificial insemination using the husband’s semen (AIH) elicited significantly less testimony from witnesses. It will be considered to what extent, and in what ways, women seeking treatment for their infertility were pathologized, in terms of their bodies, personalities, and even agency in proactively seeking motherhood. It will also reflect upon whether the men involved - their husbands, the semen donors, and the doctors themselves - escaped these pathologizing tendencies.

  • [1] am indebted to the Wellcome Trust for their financial support of the research uponwhich this chapter is based, and to Roger Davidson, Mark Jackson and Tracey Loughranfor their intellectual support. G. Davis (*) School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
  • [2] e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it
  • [3] © The Author(s) 2017
  • [4] G. Davis, T. Loughran (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Infertilityin History, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52080-7_19
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