Tracing the Paths of Scientific Discovery
By Dorothy Wright
By the early 1930s, Kyusaku Ogino and Hermann Knaus, two physicians working independently, had identified the time of ovulation in humans and demonstrated that its occurrence was relatively constant, approximately 15 days after the onset of menses.
Their discoveries debunked earlier notions of the “safe period” for sex without conception and had a profound impact on Americans’ acceptance and practice of natural birth control as well as the development of hormonal contraceptives and infertility treatments. Yet historical research and publications on the history of human reproduction have largely ignored the pivotal role this scientific discovery played. In her forthcoming book, Counting the Days: The History of Natural Birth Control in America, Paula Viterbo (Ph.D., State University of New York at Stony Brook), Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the History of Science at Bryn Mawr College, traces the path of this scientific discovery from the laboratory to its social impact.
Viterbo’s historical research is informed by her training as a biologist at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. “Historians of science tend to focus either on the science or the social aspects,” she reflects. “In many cases they do not have the theoretical knowledge and understanding of the terminology necessary to analyze the science, so the connection between the two aspects is missing. I am interested in that connection — the transition from the laboratory to society.”
Viterbo examines the ways in which the same scientific fact is presented to various audiences, including fellow scientists, practicing physicians and the general public. “The fact is presented slightly differently according to the actor’s agenda and the audience’s interests,” she explains.
In Counting the Days, Viterbo studies the interaction between a scientific fact and a social need — in this case, the need for a safe, morally acceptable form of birth control. “That’s why the time-of-ovulation fact had such a social impact,” Viterbo says. “It provided people with a birth-control method without contraceptives, a way to limit their families without introducing anything artificial in their bodies. It was even a very feminist line of thought. It was seen as the solution: women could control their own reproduction; they just had to abstain at ovulation time. Of course, things are not as simple as that, but it had the appeal of controlling one’s body with knowledge.”
Actors and Audiences
The time-of-ovulation discovery was seized upon by people with various agendas as the answer to the medical, legal and moral problems associated with artificial contraceptives. “The arguments for the rhythm method are different when used by Roman Catholics, physicians and leaders of the birth-control movement,” Viterbo explains. “The same fact gets reworked according to the different actors and audiences, and I think this happens with all aspects of science.”
Viterbo gleaned public reaction to the news from mass media sources, in particular, magazines ranging from The Nation to Ladies Home Journal. “From these we can see that the public is not homogeneous, even though that’s how it was sometimes presented by the birth-control movement” — that is, a public desperate to control the size of their families, yet thwarted by political and religious institutions.
The story is not that simple, Viterbo maintains. “In fact, the story of birth control in the 1920s is not that dissimilar to what happens with abortion nowadays,” she says. “Many people were uncomfortable with birth control for moral reasons. Despite that, they still did it because they could not afford nine or 10 children. That’s a parallel with abortion today — people do it with a heavy conscience when there is no alternative.”
Science in Society
While working on her dissertation, Viterbo was an instructor and co-director of a series of interdisciplinary courses on medicine in contemporary society at SUNY Stony Brook School of Medicine, and she loved the work. “That explains a lot about why I am happy at Bryn Mawr,” she says. “I was interested in the fact that Bryn Mawr was a venue where I could write, pursue interdisciplinary studies and teach small classes.”
Under the Mellon fellowship, Viterbo is completing Counting the Days, which will be published by Harvard University Press. She is also teaching a course on the history of science and society since 1500, observing that Bryn Mawr students are highly motivated and well prepared. “As an assignment, I asked them to look at one of my papers and deconstruct it — knock it down,” she recalls. “It was quite interesting. As a matter of fact, their comments were much better than some of those I had received at conferences.”
Viterbo is involved in discussions sponsored by Bryn Mawr’s Center for Science in Society, which is dedicated to fostering collaborations among faculty, staff and students from the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. “The division between science and society does not exist; you have to treat both as social processes,” she reflects. “You cannot reduce explanations solely to scientific, political, social or economic explanations. It is a complex picture.“
Dorothy Wright contributes news and feature articles on science, technology, engineering and general interest topics to a variety of publications, including Civil Engineering and Engineering News Record.