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Points Interview: ‘Controlling the Uterus’ with Naomi Rendina

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Today’s post features an interview with Naomi Rendina, a US-based historian. Naomi focuses on the history of reproduction and pharmaceuticals involved in childbirth.

Naomi recently authored ‘Controlling the Uterus: A History of Labor Augmentation Drugs in Childbirth, 1900–1970‘ in the recently-published issue of the History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals. Find out more about Naomi’s background, article and future research plans in this interview.

Please tell readers a little bit about yourself.

Hi! My name is Naomi Rendina, and I was awarded my PhD from Case Western Reserve University. I remotely defended my dissertation at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic! I’m a historian by trade, but not on the tenure track.

What got you interested in the history of alcohol, pharmacy, drugs, or pharmaceuticals?

Drugs are fun! I didn’t set out to study the history of drugs when I went to grad school. Shifting focus to look at drugs was actually a happy accident! While working in the archives looking for something about childbirth, I stumbled upon an article from 1932 that suggested that everything about the way physicians were approaching childbirth needed to be investigated. Maternal mortality was still shamefully high, and public health researchers and obstetricians wanted to know why.

This 1932 article pointed out that chemical intervention warranted just as much investigation as other interventions. At that time, ergot and pituitary extract helped with postpartum hemorrhage and was slowly shifting to help with labor. That one magical moment in the archives radically changed the direction of my dissertation, and I am forever grateful.

Like the good grad student I was, I went searching for the literature on drugs in childbirth used for hemorrhage, induction, or labor augmentation. I was disappointed to find that there was nothing about the history of augmentation drugs. I decided that I was going to be the historian to do it.

What motivated you to write this article specifically?

This article distills most of one dissertation chapter. My research was funded, in part, by the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy’s dissertation research grant. With the grant, I looked at some papers related to oxytocin research, so I thought that HoPP would be the best home for this research!

Explain your article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.

I love this question! I’d actually reply the same way when talking about my broader research: the way we’re taught about “natural” childbirth is a huge lie based on the ideas of a dude who suggested that natural birth was without intervention. Except, there is no period of human history that we’ve not intervened into childbirth. Thanks to the mid-late 20th century counterculture and feminist movements, we tend to think about natural childbirth as a birth without intervention. Natural birth means laboring and delivering without pain medication, no surgeries, and nothing like having your water broken. But what about labor induction drugs? They aren’t in the first discussions about what “natural” meant. This, I argue, is the point: there are drugs that “help” you do what your body was already going to do (like labor and deliver a little human), and there are drugs that stop your body from doing what it’s supposed to do (like feel the pain of delivering said little human). So, using drugs that help your body is “natural” and worth overlooking, and drugs that stop you from feeling pain is “unnatural.” This article starts the conversation about which drugs are and are not considered natural, while also starting to explore the history of labor induction drugs.

Did you uncover anything particularly interesting or surprising during your work on this project?

Lots of things! Part of what drove my research in this direction was discovering a 1930 U.S. Senate hearing about adulterated ergot entering the US and being given to women. It was wild, and about 15 years of back-and-forth shaming and blaming between the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association and an ergot importer. Unsurprisingly, nothing came from that hearing. I actually wrote a Points blog about ergot a while ago!

In terms of the broader project on oxytocin, it’s been interesting to read how physicians talked about labor induction and oxytocin in the first decades of the 20th century. Specifically, comments about induction entering criminal practice and how even in the first half of the 20th century, physicians wondered if and when it would be illegal to intervene into childbirth at all. I think many of their thoughts are, and will continue to be, particularly poignant in the post-Roe era.

What do you think is the most important takeaway from this article?

I think the most important takeaway from this article is that our understanding of nature is far more complex than we often give credit, and that in practice, idealizing “natural” is an always-moving goalpost that does more harm than good. Additionally, I think it’s important for readers to take this article as inspiration to think about how drugs/pharmaceuticals can be used as an interesting lens for analyzing history. How do drugs help us better understand the history we thought we already knew?

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

Yes! This is the first article based on my dissertation research. I am slowly but surely working on my book proposal. I hope to publish with a trade press because I think this research is important for women across the country to read. While working on this, I’m also working on a few small but related article projects, consulting with journalists for their work, and trying to write a few blogs.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I’d just like to say thank you to anyone who took the time to read this and/or the article! Your support means the world to me! I’m available to give talks at your organization/university/hospital, and also really enjoy collaborative projects! I also really enjoy just chatting with cool people about my work (and theirs!), so please feel free to email me to set up any of these things!(


Note: The featured image for this post, of Pitocin, comes from the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy Digital Collection. Copyright is unknown.


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