Monstrosities and Malformations

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week’s timely post is contributed by Dr. Conor Reidy from the University of Limerick and explores attitudes to inebriate women and their unborn children.

‘Non-developments, monstrosities, and malformations’: some early twentieth-century medical attitudes to inebriate women and their unborn children

In January 1904, forty-four year old Susan M appeared before Judge Fitzgibbon at the Recorder’s Court in Belfast where she was convicted of child neglect and being a habitual drunkard. Susan was a married housekeeper who ‘has been of drunken habits for years’ with thirteen prior convictions including neglecting children, threatening language and indecent behaviour. She was sentenced to two years in the State Inebriate Reformatory at Ennis. Established under the Inebriates’ Act 1898 the reformatory was operated by the prison system for the punishment and reform of those convicted of alcohol-related offences and declared to be a ‘habitual drunkard’ by a court. Susan’s story is not unremarkable and in line with that of dozens of other women and men who passed through the gates of Ennis. One factor that is almost lost in her records is mentioned in just four words under the column named ‘children’. It states, ‘five living, six dead’.[1] More about Susan later but her situation raises some inconsistencies in the relationship between child mortality and criminally drunken women.

Around this time an active conversation was underway among the learned members of the Society for the Study of Inebriety which was founded twenty years earlier in London. In 1903 it began publishing its’ proceedings in the renamed British Journal of Inebriety offering an insight into the prevailing thinking on many alcoholism-related themes. Of particular concern to speakers and contributors was the effect of alcohol consumption on children, both born and unborn. Mary Scharlieb, Gynaecological Surgeon to the Royal Free Hospital in London expressed the sentiments of many contributors in an address in 1907:

It is alcoholism in the mothers and fathers that crowds our graveyards with premature infants and miserable little children who die before their fifth year is completed. It is the alcoholism of the mothers that gives the children such an environment as makes it little less than a miracle if they grow up to manhood and womanhood…It is alcoholism that is at the present moment threatening, not only our national efficiency, but our very existence as a nation.[2]

It was this latter concern for the well-being of the empire rather than that of the children or the mothers that was repeated most often by different speakers during these years. Another expert, T. Claye Shaw, a lecturer on psychological medicine at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London was not alone in his loathing of the drunken mother. In 1903 he declared that there was ‘nothing more to be honoured than the mother, nothing more contemptible than the inebriate mother’.[3] This fitted the existing narrative that presented alcohol as a disease of the will whereby women had weaker willpower than men and thereby a greater inability to reform or be reformed. In prison records or accounts of court proceedings for Susan M. or indeed any other similarly circumstanced woman at Ennis there was no mention of any trauma suffered by a mother because of a high incidence of child mortality in her family. Neither was there any mention in the records examined for the mothers of Ennis of spousal violence as a mitigating factor. Such mentions typically only emerged after she was discharged. Despite the lofty debates that often informed social, legal and even public thinking in Britain and Ireland there no mention as to whether multiple infant deaths among the Ennis women were a cause or effect of alcoholism.

In his address Shaw pointed to recent French scholarship that demonstrated that as alcohol passed in large quantities into the foetus, ‘non-developments, monstrosities, and malformations are brought about in the alcoholised foetus’. He noted further (uncited) research that pointed out that abortion and miscarriage were commonplace among inebriate women although he observed that whether such outcomes were due to the immediate influence of alcohol or to disease of the placenta was unclear. Another uncited study of an English prison population showed that fifty-six per cent of the children of inebriates were either stillborn or died within their first two years. Despite the by then widespread mention of this research in public medical forums the complexity of alcohol addiction, pregnancy and childbirth had not filtered into the courtrooms of Ireland where women such as Susan were routinely humiliated and chastised for their shortcomings. As with many of the inebriate reformatories of Britain, Ennis closed in 1918, largely due to the lack of application of any scientific or medical approach to the treatment of alcoholism.

Despite her history with alcohol Susan emerged as one of the few permanently reformed inmates of the Irish reformatory. Following her discharge in 1906 at the age of forty-six she returned home to family in Belfast where she lived an ‘exemplary’ life. One of the features of the Ennis reformatory was the five-year ‘after-history’ that the governor was required to compile for each inmate. Susan did not require a five-year after-history record, however, as she died from consumption at the age of forty-nine on 12 April 1909.[4]

Dr. Conor Reidy is a specialist in early twentieth-century Irish prison history with an emphasis on penal reform. His second monograph Criminal Irish Drunkards: the inebriate reformatory system 1900-1920 was published by The History Press Ireland in December 2014.


[1] General Prisons Board, State Inebriate Reformatory for Ireland, Casebook – history of inmates before and after treatment 1902-1920, 1/18/2 (hereafter GPB, Casebook).

[2] Mary Scharlieb, Gynaecological Surgeon to the Royal Free Hospital, London, ‘Alcohol and the children of the nation’, British Journal of Inebriety, 5, 2 (October, 1907), 60.

[3] T. Claye Shaw (Lecturer on Psychological Medicine, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital), ‘The psychology of the inebriate mother’, The British Journal of Inebriety, 1, 2 (October 1903), 58.

[4] GPB, Casebook.


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