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Botany and Birth Control: elements of social science

Botany was the nineteenth century science par excellence with myriads of enthusiasts scouring fields and pastures for pleasure. It was a simple, cheap and respectable pastime, accessible to artisans and women, that grew in popularity as Britain industrialised and urbanised. This broad appeal may explain why, in part, 'the birds and the bees' provided the euphemism of choice when discussing human reproduction.

This project explores the inter-relationship of botany and birth control, from Malthus through to Marie Stopes, with an assessment of the use of botanical language in birth control literature; an evaluation of the relative importance of botany to the writings of leading birth controllers; and the heuristic importance of botanical methods, concepts and questions, in shaping arguments for birth control.

Dr Stack further considers the centrality of the 'population question' in the growth of self-consciously 'scientific' social thought. In particular, how botany and birth control - in writers as diverse as Annie Besant, George Drysdale, George Bentham and Hewett Cottrell Watson - provided a 'soft' mechanism for the naturalisation of social thought, which pre-dated Darwinism. Birth control, it will be shown, was a key 'element' in the construction of social science.

Annie Besant

Interviewee: David Stack Date: 08 October 2012 Audio/video recording