History of the RSM
Feature of the month - April
A portrait by John Laguerre
“Perhaps this was the most singular instance of imposture and also of credulity in modern times.”
1726 was a year in which two improbable fictions were made public. Jonathan Swift published Gulliver’s Travels, and a 25-year old maidservant called Mary Toft from Godalming in Surrey claimed that she had given birth to 16 rabbits. Rabbits appear to have been quite an obsession with Mary who said that while pregnant she formed an intense craving for roast rabbit, had admired rabbits in the village market, and had chased rabbits from her own garden. The subsequent birth of rabbits to her was explained by the theory of “maternal impression” whereby significant experiences of women in pregnancy could affect the foetus even, in this case, to the extent of transforming a human foetus into that of a rabbit.
Mary’s labour was attended by the Godalming man-midwife John Howard who was so impressed by what he allegedly witnessed that he wrote to several of the leading physicians of the day, including Nathanael St. Andre, surgeon-anatomist to King George I, and the eminent obstetrician Sir Richard Manningham, asking for their opinion on the matter.
The story came to the attention of the press and caused a national sensation.
On 7th December 1726 Mary finally confessed to the fraud after a porter had admitted to having smuggled a number of dead rabbits into the birthing chamber.
An engraving by William Hogarth
The RSM library holds a bound collection of some twenty of the tracts and pamphlets which were published at the time and which kept the story in circulation and fuelled the various arguments for and against the truth of Mary’s story.
The front endpaper of the volume contains a handwritten note from its former owner, Dr Samuel Merriman (1731 – 1818), concerning its purchase at a cost of £2.5s.0d. A cutting from a bookseller’s catalogue pasted below Merriman’s autograph describes the Toft case as “the most singular instance of imposture and also of credulity in modern times.”
One pamphlet cashes in on the literary sensation of the year in claiming Lemuel Gulliver, “Surgeon and Anatomist to the Kings of Lilliput and Blefescu, and Fellow of the Academy of Sciences in Balnibarbi” as its author.
Another equally sceptical item in the collection is entitled: The doctors in labour; or a new whim [wham from Guilford]. being a representation of the frauds by which the Godliman woman carried on her pretended [rabbit breeding], etc.
The pop culture of the day is represented by The discovery; or the squire turn'd ferret. An excellent new ballad. To the tune of "High boys, up go we;" "Chevy chase," or "What you please;", and an ecclesiastical perspective is offered by The opinion of the Revd. Mr. William Whiston concerning the affair of Mary Toft ascribing it to be the completion of a prophecy of Esdras.
The volume is now housed securely in the Society’s Library.
Collection of tracts relative to Mary Toft, the pretended rabbit-breeder. 1728
Royal Society of Medicine Manuscripts Collection. MSS. 265