Thesis ID: CBB171852329

Constructing Moral Babies: The Medical and Scientific Enterprise of Infancy in America, 1850s–1920s (2022)


Constructing “Moral Babies” traces the discourse on the moral agency of infants and how physicians, scientists, and child-rearing authorities have conceptualized infancy and morality in America from the 1850s to the 1920s. This dissertation is an intellectual and cultural history that takes an interdisciplinary approach—one that draws on the history of medicine, sociology, feminist theology, childhood studies, and material culture—, investigating a critical period in American history that saw the infant as a significant medical, scientific, political, and cultural object and subject. This dissertation contributes to existing historical scholarship by going beyond just affirming the entanglement of the moral, spiritual, and scientific in infant health and science to argue that the medical and scientific communities during this period frequently understood infants as moral agents, that is, as actively engaged in moral choices of their own accord. Drawing on various sources such as child-rearing manuals, domestic medicine guides, design books, and babies’ material culture, the dissertation argues that while historians have often viewed this period as the ascendancy of medicine’s focus on the physiological aspects of the infant, there were complex and lively debates on infants’ iii moral nature and understanding infants’ moral agency. The chapters of the dissertation explore the aforementioned topics in three different contexts: (1) the communities of scientific experts and the syncretism of science and religion that composed a nuanced and complex image of infants; (2) the asymmetric alliances forged between physicians and white, middle-class American mothers and the subtext of written counsel from expert to mother; and (3) the material world of babies, as imagined by medical prescriptions for the construction and design of nurseries, and the selection and use of baby furniture, toys, and devices. This project addresses fundamental questions of how morality was construed and how the infant was positioned and used in this enterprise. Introducing a marginalized figure, this dissertation foregrounds infants as innovative sites of inquiry about agency, citizenship, personhood, and morality.

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Authors & Contributors
Shah, Nayan
Shvarts, Shifra
Noon, David Hoogland
Smuts, Alice Boardman
Armitage, Kevin Connor
Oelkers, Jürgen
History of Psychology
Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
Journal of the Guilded Age and Progressive Era
Journal of Southern History
Medicina Historica
Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology
University of California Press
Yale University Press
University of Chicago Press
State University of New York at Binghamton
Loyola University of Chicago
University of Pennsylvania
Child development
Medicine and society
Social sciences
Infant care
Shinn, Milicent Washburn
Main, Mary Biggar
Huxley, Thomas Henry
Osborn, Henry Fairfield
Mantegazza, Paolo
Binet, Alfred
Time Periods
20th century, early
19th century
18th century
20th century, late
20th century
21st century
United States
California (U.S.)
North Carolina (U.S.)
North America

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