Towards the end of the year 1726, a rather astounding revelation involving a 25-year old maidservant named Mary Toft came out.
Married to a journeyman clothing worker and living in Godalming, in Surrey, England, she was described by contemporary sources as having "a healthy, strong constitution, small size, fair complexion, a very stupid and sullen temper, and unable to read and write." According to Mary, she was weeding in a field when a rabbit sprang up near her and caused her to run away. This left her with a craving for rabbit while she was five weeks pregnant. She later claimed that another rabbit sprang up near her later on and that she had a dream about the two rabbits that left her "awake, and in a sick fit". The resulting craving for rabbit meat supposedly influenced the remainder of her pregnancy and caused her to give birth to what appeared very much like a dead rabbit. What had actually happened was that Mary had miscarried in August of that year but had managed to convince others that she was still pregnant. She was so skillful in her pretense that she was able to convince her midwife, John Howard that, over the course of a month, that she had given birth to nearly twenty rabbits (all dead).
The news spread rapidly although many already suspected her of a hoax. Howard sent letters to various medical authorities and King George I dispatched his own house surgeon, Nathaniel St. Andre as well as several other prominent medical doctors of the day to investigate. Mary fooled them all. The rabbits were taken back to London to be dissected in the king's presence and St. Andre published his findings. The resulting
controversy was all that could be imagined. Skeptics and believers argued it out endlessly and some even attempted to link Mary's miraculous births to events mentioned in Scripture. Rabbit stew and similar dishes vanished from the menu across England.
In the end, it took the efforts of Princess Caroline, then-Princess of Wales and Sir Richard Manningham of the Royal Society to expose the fraud.
Mary was brought to London where her claims were examined under controlled conditions. She was finally caught out and it took the threat of surgery to prove her claims that caused her to confess all. She admitted that the fraud had been suggested to her by a woman acquaintance who felt it would be a good way to earn a living without having to work for it. The rabbits had been smuggled to her and she would insert them into her vagina so that she would appear to give birth to them. Mary was arrested for fraud and Nathaniel St. Andre and the other physicians who had supported her claims were disgraced. It took quite a long time for the medical profession to get over that one.
The key to Mary's claim and the reason that medical professionals of the time were so credulous lay in a now-obscure concept known as maternal impressions. Supporters of this idea held that birth defects and other health problems faced by newborn children were due to emotional problems faced by expectant mothers which then imprinted on their fetus. In the case of the Elephant Man, several medical experts had suggested that his deformities were due to his mother being frightened by an elephant at some point in her pregnancy. Similar cases were reported of children born with physical characteristics that supposedly characterized some traumatic incident that had occurred to their mothers during pregnancy. It was out of fear of the impact that their appearance would have on pregnant women that Chang and Eng Bunker, the original "Siamese Twins" were banned from appearing in France for a time.
Maternal impressions were also held to account for psychological disorders as well. Depression and schizophrenia were felt to be due to emotional problems that the mother experienced during pregnancy that she would then pass on to her child. There were also reported cases of paternal impressions with some traumatic episode affecting the father being passed on as well.
It would not be until well into the 20th century before the maternal impressions hypothesis would finally be discarded. Still, as scientific hypotheses go, it was not a bad one. There were certainly centuries worth of case histories to back it up and I have a 19th century medical textbook on one of my shelves that lists it along with the other proven medical facts of the day.
So the next time you hear of a news item describing a truly extraordinary event that seems to have hard scientific evidence to back it up, you might want to give a thought to Mary Tofts, Rabbit Breeder Extraordinaire.