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10 Things We Thought Were True Before the Scientific Method


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Maternal Impression
The idea of maternal impression certainly made for some interesting stories.  ElenaVasilchenko/iStock/Thinkstock
The idea of maternal impression certainly made for some interesting stories. ElenaVasilchenko/iStock/Thinkstock

Clearly, medicine was slow to emerge as a respected and rigorous field of study. Case in point: Mary Toft, the woman who in September 1726 convinced at least a dozen doctors that she could give birth to dead rabbits and rabbit parts. Repeatedly.

Let's pause to let that sink in.

Although the scientific method was well-established in some circles, medicine remained a stew of ideas, peppered heavily with quackery and pet theories. The burgeoning field of heredity still accepted maternal impression, the millennia-old idea that whatever a pregnant woman saw or felt could physically alter her unborn child. In one remarkable tale, a newspaper reported that an alleged father's name "appear in legible letters in his infant son's right eye" [sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica; Davis; Pediatrics; University of Glasgow].

Clearly, argued consulting experts, poor Mary Toft had suffered a startling, rabbit-related encounter that had transformed her into a bunny-birthing dynamo.

Toft carried off the hoax for months, enjoying national celebrity, fooling numerous physicians and attracting the attention of King George I. A few experts, like German surgeon Cyriacus Ahlers, offered discrediting scientific evidence, noting that some "newborn" dead rabbits had air in their lungs and stool containing straw, grass and grain. But it was not until someone caught her mother-in-law hare-handed buying small rabbits, and under threat of painful reproductive exploratory surgery, that Mary confessed [sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica; Davis; Pediatrics; University of Glasgow].


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