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Prenatal Influences on Character (S476: 1893)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed in the Nature issue of 24 August 1893. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S476.htm

    [[p. 389]] The popular belief that prenatal influences on the mother affect the offspring physically, producing moles and other birth-marks, and even malformations of a more or less serious character, is said to be entirely unsupported by any trustworthy facts, and is also rejected by physiologists on theoretical grounds. But I am not aware that the question of purely mental effects arising from prenatal mental influences on the mother has been separately studied. Our ignorance of the causes, or at least of the whole series of causes, that determine individual character is so great, that such transmission of mental influences will hardly be held to be impossible or even very improbable. It is one of those questions on which our minds should remain open, and on which we should be ready to receive and discuss whatever evidence is available; and should a primâ facie case be made out, seek for confirmation by some form of experiment or observation, which is perhaps less difficult than at first sight it may appear to be.

    In one of the works of George or Andrew Combe, I remember a reference to a case in which the character of a child appeared to have been modified by the prenatal reading of its mother, and the author, if I mistake not, accepted the result as probable, if not demonstrated. I think, therefore, that it will be advisable to make public some interesting cases of such modification of character which have been sent me by an Australian lady in consequence of reading my recent articles on the question whether acquired characters are inherited. The value of these cases depends on their differential character. Two mothers state that in each of their children (three in one case and four in the other) the character of the child very distinctly indicated the prenatal occupations and mental interests of the mother, though at the time they were manifested in the child they had ceased to occupy the parent, so that the result cannot be explained by imitation. The second mother referred to by my correspondent only gives cases observed in other families which do not go beyond ordinary heredity.

    "I can trace in the character of my first child, a girl now twenty-two years of age, a special aptitude for sewing, economical contriving, and cutting out, which came to me as a new experience when living in the country amongst new surroundings, and, strict economy being necessary, I began to try and sew for the coming baby and for myself. I also trace her great love of history to my study of Froude during that period, and to the breathless interest with which my husband and I followed the incidents of the Franco-German war. Yet her other tastes for art and literature are distinctly hereditary. In the case of my second child, also a daughter (I having interested myself prior to her birth in literary pursuits) the result has been a much acuter form of intelligence, which at six years old enabled her to read and enjoy the ballads which Tennyson was then giving to the world, and which at the age of barely twenty years allowed her to take her degree as B.A. of the Sydney University.

    "Before the third child, a boy, was born, the current of our life had changed a little. Visits to my own family and a change of residence to a distant colony, which involved a long journey, as well as the work which such changes involve, together with the care of my two older children, absorbed all my time and thoughts, and left little or no leisure for studious pursuits. My occupations were more mechanical than at any other time previous. This boy does not inherit the studious tastes of his sisters at all. He is intelligent and possesses most of the qualifications which will probably conduce to success in life, but he prefers any kind of outdoor work or handicraft to study. Had I been as alive then as I am now to the importance of these theories, I should have endeavoured to guard against this possibility; as it is, I always feel that it is perhaps my fault that one of the greatest pleasures of life has been debarred to him.

    "But I must not weary you by so many personal details, and I trust you will not suspect me of vanity in thus bringing my own [[p. 390]] children under your notice. Suffice it to say that in every instance I can and do constantly trace what others might term coincidences, but which to me appear nothing but cause and effect in their several developments.

    "I will pass on to quote a few passages from letters written to me by two highly intelligent mothers, whom I asked to give me their experiences on this subject, if they had any.

    "Mrs. B____ says: 'I can trace, nay, have traced (in secret amusement often), something in every child of mine. Before the birth of my eldest girl I took to ornithology, for work and amusement, and did a great deal in taxidermy too. At the age of three years I find this youngster taking such insects and little animals as she could find, and puzzling me with hard questions as to what was inside them. Later on she used to be seen with a small knife, working and dissecting cleverly and with much care and skill at their insides. One day she brought me the tiniest heart of the tiniest lizard you could imagine, so small that I had to examine it through a glass, though she saw it without any artificial aid. By some means she got a young wallaby and made an apron with a pocket inside which she used to call her "pouch." This study of natural history is still of interest to her, though she lacks time and opportunities. Still, she always does a little dissecting when she gets a chance.'

    "I never noticed anything about P____ for some years. Three months before he was born a friend, whom I will call Smith, was badly hurt, and was brought to my house to be nursed. I turned out the nursery and he lay there for three months. I nursed him until I could do so no longer, and then took lodgings in town for my confinement. Now after all these years I have discovered how this surgical nursing has left its mark. This boy is in his element when he can be of use in cases of accident, &c. He said to me quite lately, 'How I wish you had made a surgeon of me.' Then all at once the light flashed in upon me, but, alas! it was too late to remedy the mistake.

    "Before the birth of the third child I passed ten of the happiest months of my life. We had a nice house, one side of which was covered with cloth of gold roses and bougainvillea, a garden with plenty of flowers, and a vineyard. Here we led an idyllic life, and did nothing but fish, catch butterflies, and paint them. At least, my husband painted them after I had caught them and mixed his colours. At the end of this time L____ was born. This child excels in artistic talent of many kinds, nothing comes amiss to her, and she draws remarkably well. She is of a bright, gay disposition, finding much happiness in life, even though not always placed in the most fortunate surroundings. Before the birth of my next child, N____, a daughter, I had a bad time. My husband fell ill of fever, and I had to nurse him without help or assistance of any kind. We had also losses by floods. I don't know how I got through that year, but I had no time for reading. N____ is the most prudent, economical girl I know. She is a splendid housekeeper and a good cook, and will work till she drops, but has no taste for reading, but seems to gain knowledge by suction."

    If the preceding cases are fully and accurately stated they seem to afford grounds for further investigation. Changes in mode of life and in intellectual occupation are so frequent among all classes, that materials must exist for determining whether such changes during the prenatal period have any influence on the character of the offspring. The present communication may perhaps induce ladies who have undergone such changes, and who have large families, to state whether they can trace any corresponding effect on the character of their children.

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