Aristotle’s Masterpiece was the bestselling book about making babies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean from the late 17th to the early 20th century—but the book isn’t by Aristotle, and it’s not usually considered a masterpiece. First printed in London in 1684, it became a steady seller, going into hundreds of editions in Britain and America. The book provided basic information about sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and infant care to generations of readers, and because it was so popular, references to it abound in the historical record. In this talk, Prof. Mary Fissell explores some of the reasons for the book’s long-lived success, and tells stories about individual readers of the text.
Mary E. Fissell is Professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University, where she also co-edits the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Her scholarly work focuses on how ordinary people in the past understood health, healing, and the natural world; she is the author of Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Motherhood in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2004). She is currently writing a social and cultural history of Aristotle's Masterpiece, an extraordinarily long-lived popular medical book about sex and reproduction.