Further into Imperfecta

What’s Mom Got to Do With It? Maternal Impression in Western Medicine

To the contemporary reader, that idea seems ridiculous. Yet, this is exactly a story told in Thomas Fienus’ 1608 book A Treatise on the Power of the Imagination. According to the tale, a pregnant mother’s desire for mussels was so strong that her child was born with a head shaped like a mussel. Fienus then describes the child living for eleven years, fed through its “gaping bivalve,” before finally perishing due to a cracked shell.

Fienus, a prominent Swiss physician at the time, does admit a little skepticism at this account. Yet he spends over 150 pages of his treatise describing with full credulity other such stories of mothers scared by wolves whose children were born with wolf-like features, and of mothers who craved cherries and strawberries and whose children were born with birthmarks resembling these fruits.

These are examples of “maternal impression.” Maternal impression was a theory that an emotional or physical stimulus experienced by a pregnant woman* could influence the development of her fetus. It was used to explain birth defects and other congenital disorders for centuries. Often the impression was a direct analog in which a desire, trauma or even the sight of something could manifest itself on the fetus.

Throughout this path, we will look at some of the ideas behind the concept of maternal impression as they have appeared throughout Western medicine.

*While the Historical Medical Library acknowledges that people who do not identify as a woman can become pregnant and give birth, we will use the term woman and women in our writing on this subject to reflect contemporary usage as it relates to the primary sources consulted.


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  1. This represents the child in the womb, in its natural situation