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Real Monsters – an Interview with Laura Bland, Ph.d.

Just in time for jack-o-laterns and broomsticks, Dr. Laura Bland comes to WIH to talk all things in which culture has deemed spooky, freaky, and supernatural throughout the ages. We can’t wait to hear what she has to teach us about this fascinating topic. 

WIH: Welcome, Dr. Bland! We are so excited for this class – who doesn’t love a good ghost story? Was there something particular that drew you to this field of study? 

Dr. Bland: I was trotting along in my perfectly respectable biochemistry classes when I took an elective in Medieval studies and found out alchemy was a real thing. I’d always loved the aesthetic of old science, with its shameless chasing after the weird and the wonderful. I’m fascinated by the ways that wonder-chasing crystalized into what we recognize as science, and how that science keeps making space for the weird.

WIH: You mention in your course description that there are historical connections between monsters, sex, religion, and politics. Can you give us an example? No spoilers, please!

Dr. Bland: Whenever a real monster—any strange anomaly—appeared in history, it was a sign of something wrong. The birth of a two-headed cow or the appearance of a comet might set off a riot. So if you gave birth to a child with birth defects—a “monster”—you were liable to find yourself called an adulteress, a heretic, a rebel, or even the Antichrist. Less literally, a culture’s monsters embody its fears, so we see monsters opening doors to dangerous possibilities in religion, politics, and sex.

WIH: I was recently watching a British crime drama and the plot centered around an artist who worked as a taxidermist. One of the characters mentioned that the Victorians were obsessed with death and human abnormalities, and it made me think of your upcoming class. (true story!) Was this true and why do you think that might have been?

Dr. Bland: Oh, definitely. There’s a long answer to this we’ll talk about in class that has to do with Victorian science, but the short answer is this is the seedy side of the Victorian obsession with purity and civilization. If you define yourself against the freakish, the monstrous, the foreign, the colonized, what better way to reinforce your own sense of self than to pay a few cents to “step right up” to a ten-cent freak show that proves how much better—culturally, physically, evolutionarily–you really are?

WIH: Considering your specialization in the history of science and religion and the cultural history of gynecology and reproduction, what do you make of the current fight regarding reproductive freedom? 

Dr. Bland: What strikes me as a historian of birth defects is that penalties for “abortion” are already bleeding over into penalties for anything a woman does that might endanger a fetus, even if she’s not pregnant. We’ve already seen non-pregnant women, even post-menopausal women, denied vital medications for rheumatoid arthritis and even cancer because the law might be used against pharmacists who fill medications known to cause birth defects. If the possibility of negative outcomes for a potential pregnancy is enough to deny essential healthcare, that sets a chilling precedent.

WIH: Your research has explored how writers without scientific training understood questions about the role of God in nature, superstition, and the natural order and your dissertation compared Catholic and Protestant conceptions of superstition and divine intervention in nature described in pamphlets printed after the “Great Comet” of 1680. Do you have any superstitions that even your logical mind just can’t shake?

Dr. Bland: Absolutely. I don’t care if it’s December; you’ll never catch me out here saying it looks like we dodged the bullet on hurricane season. 

WIH: Before we leave you, I think we have to ask… what is the most shocking thing that you have encountered in your research?

Dr. Bland: For me, it’s the very straightforward, dispassionate records of dissections that are the most unsettling. One thing I’ve found is that it’s never the monsters themselves that are the most unnerving–it’s the doctors.

You don’t want to miss this incredible class! Be sure to register for
Real Monsters: Adventures in the History of the Abnormal with Professor Laura Bland.
Tuesdays, 4 weeks, October 4 – October 25 | 1:00 – 3:00 PM
$120 | In-person and Simulcast via Zoom