The Burden of Procreation: Women and
Preformation in the Works of George
Garden and George Cheyne
In the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London for February 1691 a paper appeared entitled ‘A Discourse concerning the Modern Theory of Generation’, written by the Aberdeen virtuoso, Dr. George Garden. Apart from the early use of the term ‘modern’ in the title, the paper offered a spirited defence of the animalculist version of preformation theory, which declared that the preformed embryo was contained in the semen of the father. Garden stated his premises clearly: ‘1. That Animals are ex animalcule. 2. That these Animalcles [sic] are originally in semine Marium & non in Foeminis. 3. That they can never come forward, nor be formed into Animals of the respective kind, without the Ova in foeminis’.1
Fifty years later, in his Natural Method of Cureing the Diseases of the Body (1742), Garden’s former pupil, the physician George Cheyne, reiterated these ideas and placed them in the context of his discussion of female illnesses and the role of women in procreation. In this chapter, I will examine Garden’s and Cheyne’s ideas in the context of the philosophical and religious beliefs that they developed in Aberdeen. Cheyne further developed Garden’s particular fusion of natural philosophy and theology in the light of Garden’s own subsequent theological journey along the path of the ‘mystics of the northeast’, a journey which Cheyne repeated. In his popular medical works of the 1720s and 1730s Cheyne translated the language of mysticism into prescriptions for everyday behaviour. His work added a spiritual dimension to preformation theory which emphasised the importance of the role of women, although he continued to believe in the animalculist interpretation. In Garden’s formulation, animalculism gave women little role in reproduction, but Cheyne’s positive portrayal of the role of women reflected his concern for the health of his many female patients.
Together, the work of Garden and Cheyne gives a broader background to the development of Enlightenment thought in Scotland. The role of natural knowledge in the Scottish Enlightenment is still much debated among historians.2 Most historiography of the European Enlightenment, and especially of Enlightenment science (with the notable exception of Margaret C. Jacob), has minimised the role of religion in its formulation.3. ‘Religion’ and ‘Enlightenment’ indeed have been thought of as antithetical and, even in