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1 As I walked into the biology building on a glorious June day, the temperature in the basement was cool enough to cause a little shiver, and the piercing smell of formaldehyde in the storeroom gave the eerie impression of entering a morgue. One light bulb was burned out, yet in the gloom I could make out dozens of grimy jars of human fetuses packed three or four deep on industrial metal shelves. Judging by the dust, the collection had been untouched for decades. The formaldehyde had completely evaporated from some of the jars, leaving the contents to rot into sodden gray sludge. No one had taken much care with the collection even in its prime. Fetal specimens were casually stowed in mayonnaise jars and old-fashioned mason jars with glass lids and wire bails; just a few were in museum-quality exhibition vessels . An antique pill bottle with glass stopper held a tiny, one-inch fetus still enshrouded in its cloudlike chorionic membrane. One jar—inadequately sealed with masking tape—held a larger specimen that had turned an uncanny bright turquoise, discolored by the copper wire that held it against a glass plate. Another jar that had once contained eight pounds of Kraft freshchilled grapefruit sections now was packed with eight topsy-turvy fetuses in various states of deterioration. In total, I counted nearly one hundred fetuses in the jars. It wasn’t easy to look. I had the impulse to dash upstairs and forget I’d ever requested the visit. This was not the sanitized, schematic view of prenatal One A Skeleton in the Closet and Fetuses in the Basement UC-Morgan-ToPress.indd 1 UC-Morgan-ToPress.indd 1 6/8/2009 1:48:58 PM 6/8/2009 1:48:58 PM c h a p t e r 1 2 development depicted in pregnancy books and Web sites. Nor was it a clean, brightly lit display of well-maintained specimens. It was dark, dirty, moldering . I tried to gather my wits. “You asked to come here,” I scolded myself. “You are escorted by a professional scientist in a clean white coat. Don’t be such a wimp!” So I drew a careful breath and looked more closely, tried to think of something to say, moved a few jars around. I wished I had brought gloves, although I knew that the impulse was motivated more by a fear of pollution thanafearofdirt.Ihadtheurgetowashmyhands.EvenasIgrewaccustomed to the surroundings, the muscles behind my cheekbones remained taut. The laboratory supervisor picked up one conspicuously large, heavy jar and moved it into the light. We marveled over a full-term, apparently stillborn fetus, with perfect little ears and curly red hair. In that one specimen was embodied the emotional impact of the collection. Each of these “specimens,” I realized, had started its journey conceived and carried by some woman, some singular human being who had her own story to tell. Yet her identity was unknown and probably unknowable, as no effort had ever been made to credit her contribution to this scientific enterprise. There were no records that would connect the fetal specimens to the women who had carried them. I would never be able to ask a woman what had happened, or whether it bothered her that the remains of her pregnancy had ended up as an anonymous specimen relegated to the farthest corner of the biology basement storeroom. I felt a complicated sadness, not so much for the lives lost before they began (because I had no way of knowing whether those fetal deaths brought suffering or relief), but for the scientific practice that reduced so many women’s reproductive experiences to a forgotten assemblage of zoological specimens pickled in formaldehyde. As an anthropologist, I felt this to be a strange custom indeed. It had obviously happened a long time ago, but someone once had gathered those misbegotten embryos and fetuses and stored them on the shelves of a science department storeroom at Mount Holyoke College. There were other items on the shelves, including pickled snakes, fetal pigs, and various stuffed animals. Later I learned that most of the skeleton of a woman, minus a few bones, had been donated to the college in the early twentieth century and was still stored in a closet upstairs, along with miscellaneous collections of rocks, wax models of embryo brains, and antiquated instruments. Such is the detritus a college acquires over time. Of all these items, however, the fetal collection seemed the...


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