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Exploring the history of infertility

  • Date

    Fri 3 Nov 17

Dr Tracey Loughran

Infertility affects tens of millions of people worldwide each year and is as old as recorded history. Dr Tracey Loughran hopes her latest book exploring infertility's historical context will both encourage further research and help make the experience less lonely.

The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History is the first comprehensive historical survey of infertility, spanning the ancient world to the potential of future reproductive technologies and covering Europe, Asia, Australia and North America.

Historians contributing to the book use a range of different sources to reconstruct attitudes towards infertility in past societies. Dr Loughran and co-editor Dr Gayle Davis also present work from the fields of literature, sociology, philosophy, psychology, and language and communication studies.

Dr Tracey Loughran
“Understanding the historical context of our experiences can give us new ways of thinking about our problems, help us to feel less alone, and open up new possibilities for action.”
Dr Tracey Loughran Department of History

Dr Loughran first became interested in the history of infertility when she noticed a significant gap in historical research.

“I realised that although there were many excellent works on contraception, reproduction, and motherhood, very little had been written on the history of infertility,” she explains. “And from my own research on mass-market and feminist magazines in the 1960s and 1970s, I knew that certain aspects of the experience of infertility – powerlessness, vulnerability, feelings of failure, and even stigma – were not new.

“I believe that humans are historical creatures – when telling our own stories, we tend to search for the longer context, and we explain much about ourselves in terms of our individual and family histories. Understanding the historical context of our experiences can give us new ways of thinking about our problems, help us to feel less alone, and open up new possibilities for action.” 

Dr Loughran's own chapter in the Handbook looks at portrayals of infertility in the British mainstream and feminist media in the 1960s and 70s - a time when the message was that women had new-found control thanks to the widespread availability of contraception and legalisation of abortion. She considers the ways women's experiences changed, writing: "The pain of infertility must have been especially bitter for those who had grown to adulthood believing in their power to control their reproductive destinies."

The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History
“Childless men and women of the past also demand our attention. Someone has to listen to their voices.”
Introduction, ‘The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History’ Dr Tracey Loughran and Dr Gayle Davis

In 2013, Dr Loughran and Dr Davis from the University of Edinburgh organised an interdisciplinary conference on infertility and developed the Handbook to create a permanent legacy of the event. 

Dr Loughran said: “We hope that the book will spark unexpected connections and encourage researchers to head off in different directions; but more than that, we hope it will foster greater understanding of a painful and intensely personal experience, and in this way, perhaps provide some consolation and make that experience a little less lonely and painful than is often the case.”

‘The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History’ is out now, published by Palgrave Macmillan.