The shock of the few

Monsters existed in the 1800s. They were not mythical creatures, but children born with birth defects who were widely discussed in the medical literature and sometimes cruelly paraded in the travelling freak shows of the time. Curiously, one of the most popular explanations for these congenital deformities concerned the psychology of the expectant mother.

If you had asked a 19th century doctor why some children were born with unusual bodies, or even fairly common birthmarks, you might have been told that they were caused by a frightening incident experienced by the mother during pregnancy.

The theory, known as ‘maternal impression‘, suggested the trauma could symbolically imprint itself on the foetus. The 1896 book Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine described many such cases in their chapter on obstetric anomalies, and this is a fairly typical example:

Parvin mentions an instance of the influence of maternal impression in the causation of a large, vivid, red mark or splotch on the face: “When the mother was in Ireland she was badly frightened by a fire in which some cattle were burned. Again, during the early months of her pregnancy she was frightened by seeing another woman suddenly light the fire with kerosene, and at that time became firmly impressed with the idea that her child would be marked.’

In another case history, a child with hydrocephalus with a “small and rabbit-shaped” face and deformed eyes is explained by the fact that a rabbit jumped at its mother during pregnancy where she was frightened by its ‘glare’.

Perhaps one of the most curious cases was published in 1817 and concerned a recalcitrant father who denied being responsible for an unwanted pregnancy, causing the mother a great deal of distress. The child was later born, reportedly with the name of date of birth of his father clearly visible in his eyes.

This is a curious mirror of the first, probably mythical, case of maternal impression, where Hippocrates reportedly saved the honour of an adulterous princess by explaining her dark skinned child as due to her having a portrait of a ‘negro’ in her room.

Although the theory enjoyed a long and colourful life, it peacefully passed away in the late 19th century when it became clear that the mind of the mother had no influence on birthmarks or congenital deformities.

For many years the psychological state of the expectant mother was thought to have virtually no effect on the developing child.

But then the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939, and that all began to change.

The quickly assembled Finnish force was vastly outnumbered and ominously outgunned but, unlike their Soviet counterparts, they were quick and comfortable in the Artic conditions and made swift and deadly attacks.

In one of history’s great military victories, they defeated the Russians but suffered heavy losses. Many of the dead were young men, and many of the grieving were young pregnant women.

Nearly 40 years later, two Finnish psychiatrists decided to look at the mental health of the children who grew up without fathers. They compared children born to women who grieved during pregnancy, to those born to women who lost their husbands after the child had been born.

Their study, published in 1978, found that mothers who had lost their husbands during pregnancy were much more likely to have children who later developed schizophrenia.

Many similar studies have found that severe maternal stress during pregnancy affects the developing brain of the child, increasing the risk of cognitive or psychiatric problems later in life, possibly due to the effect of the hormonal response of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system.

Thankfully, we no longer think of people as monsters, whatever their size, shape or mental state, and we have long banished the monstrous myths of ‘maternal impression’.

But we do know that the mind of the mother is connected to the development of the unborn baby, and that maternal experiences can still echo through the life of the child.

5 thoughts on “The shock of the few”

  1. Technically, the Finns were defeated in the Winter war.
    (e.g., http: //
    I do not mean to undermine the heroism of the Finnish troops and the importance of their resistance for retaining of the independence of Finland. Also, the Soviet losses were substantially higher than Finnish ones. But as a result of the war Finland had to fulfill the demands of the original Soviet ultimatum. And that defines a defeat.

  2. I saw a BBC Horizon documentary about how trauma during pregnancy affected the genes of the offspring, making the trauma stick forever and ever. Swedens churches have birth and death records that date way back. Grandchildren to people born during years of failing crops had a higher incidence of diabetes.
    They also mentioned a study done on mothers witnessing 9/11, and found that the kids whose mothers were pregnant in the last 3 months had higher cortisol levels than kids whose mothers were in the first 6 months pregnant.
    hmm and there was more, but too much for a comment =/
    thanks vaughan, great post as always.

  3. I know. Isn’t it weird that this old-fashioned belief turns out to be kind of true? As you point out, there’s a lot of scientific documentation that pregnant women’s experiences influence the fetus’ genetics, aka epigenetic influences.
    While, as you note, these are mostly on the endocrine level, if prenatal experience can influence the expression of these genes, maybe they can also influence genes that contribute to physical attributes? Birth weight is, of course, one example. Rabbit eyes???? hmmmmmm

  4. The publication date of the denying father is a little confusing. Was the father born in 1817 (as it says in the Pediatrics) or was the study published in 1817?

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