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Question of the Week: What is Pelvimetry?

Lisa10 September 2014

Lisa PlotkinLast Saturday I was engaging at the Grant Museum of Zoology where I started talking with two visitors about the history of science. As a Victorian historian, my doctoral research specifically looks at the historyof Victorian medicine and its relationship to women and the articulation of the healthy female body. There couldn’t be a better setting to discuss those themes than the Grant Museum- the only remaining zoological university collection in London, which houses a dizzying array of zoological specimens dating back to the early nineteenth-century. The museum’s founder, Robert Edmond Grant, is particularly known for his influence on the young Charles Darwin, when the latter studied under him at Edinburgh University.

As I was discussing Darwinian science with the museum visitors, one of them brought up phrenology- a not totally unexpected turn as visitors often bring up the history of eugenics when I am discussing my work. First developed in the late eighteenth century, but reaching the pinnacle of its popularity in the mid-19th century, phrenology is the pseudo-science of skull measurement in order to determine a person’s character, intelligence, and overall mental capacity. Distinct, but not unrelated to craniometry (which is the measurement of cranial features to classify people according to race and temperament) phrenology had a big impact on the concept and understanding of “race” in the Victorian period.

pelvimeter1

A pelvimeter. © Dittrick Medical History Center

This is when I introduced the word “pelvimetry” into the conversation only to receive puzzled looks. What is pelvimetry? Well, from its root word “pelv” and the fact that I am a woman’s historian you might be able to hazard a guess. In obstetrics today, pelvimetry is the measurement of the female pelvis in relation to the birth of a baby. However, in the Victorian period pelvimetry was also used to measure the female pelvis to determine racial characteristics, and to provide a medical explanation as to why a woman’s worth was inextricably linked to her reproductive system, as opposed to her brain.

Or, as the obstetrician Francourt Barnes remarked in 1884, “If woman excels by the pelvis, man excels by the head.” In keeping with this line of reasoning, the eugenics advocate Havelock Ellis ranked the races according to pelvic type and size: the oval (European), the round (American), the Square (Mongol), and the Oblong (African), emphasizing the underlying claim that the oval or European pelvic size was conducive to the healthiest brain development in babies. In this way, the female pelvic type corresponded racially to the male brain size. Craniometry and pelvimetry in easy complement, both asserting the superiority of Europeans, while at the same time stressing sexual difference to cast women as sexual and men as cerebral.

To learn more about pelvimetry see: The Female Body in Medicine and Literature (ed) Andrew Mangham and Greta Depledge or come and find me in one of UCL’s three museums- lisa.plotkin.10@ucl.ac.uk.