Anthropo-history of Neonatology

History and Anthropology of Premature Babies' Care in Post-WWII France

Olivier Thiery

This project followed and went beyond a first anthropological and ontological dissertation interest, shifting in thematical space from technical organisms to living ones, through an historic and ethnologic study of neonatology, i.e., care for premature babies, with a specific interest in the incubators into which premature babies are cared for. The project centered on the case of post WWII’s France. Neonatology was itself born in the late fourteenth century with the design of the first incubators, but the biggest developments took place between the 1960s and today—improvements in transportation infrastructures, miniaturization of medical instruments, introduction of the surfacting substance into the lungs for allowing breathing, specialization of neonatology between pediatrics and obstetrics as an autonomous discipline, creation of specialized units for extreme premature babies reanimation, development of knowledge in “physiological” and “psycho-acoustical” embryology used as a tool for clinic.

This practical inquiry had two parts. The first was historical and based on the exploitation of medical literature and interviews with doctors, which saw and participated in the transformations of the past decades. The second was ethnological, based on the observation of current practices and observations in situ of a reanimation unit. On this basis, enquiries included:

  1. On a very general and descriptive level: How is the construction of life designed, the experiment organized, the fabrication of the babies realized, the medicine of these little proto-humans made?
  2. Is it possible to insist, among this large history/ethnology, on a part of this process that is the dynamical link and the tension between scientific exploration about in vivo situations (embryology) and its translation (with all the differences implied in the making “as if,” which characterizes the building of the experiment) into the in vitro experimentation—which is of course a clinical one—into the hospital and the incubator (neonatology)?
  3. As far as the evolution of the situation from the 1950s to nowadays is concerned, and beyond the observation that we are in an epoch in which auto-production of Man has became a daily reality for hundreds of doctors, nurses, parents and babies, what kind of a definition of human life is made explicit by the couple of contemporary embryology/neonatology? We think particularly of the fact that knowledge and clinic seem to break with a functionalist/cybernetic approach and to define life as being "relations themselves in relation with an environment." This point could be particularly seen by following the evolution of the incubator’s design, progressively "opened" and where the baby is less and less "isolated."
  4. At least, is it possible to use this case of artificial construction of humans to speak and to map empirically an ontological tension between two modes of existence, i.e., "fabrication of existence in relation" where there are no entities but always relations being made, action, and agency-making; and the "emergence" of a specific and indivisible entity, in which something resists the actors, makes them passive, and takes them away in the very process of its own and singular decision of coming into the world?

Funding Institutions

MPI for the History of Science