Charles Knowlton

Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Adult People

(Mount Vernon: Peter Pauper Press, 1937).

Prof. Norman Himes' Introductory NOTICE



Himes' Introductory NOTICE

This little book, first published anonymously in New York in 1832, by an obscure, Western Massachusetts physician, has done much to revolutionize the sexual habits of the English speaking world. Its importance lies chiefly in its influence in diffusing contraceptive knowledge.

But it has intrinsic merit as well as historical importance. The Fruits of Philosophy is the most important treatise on birth control technique for seventeen centuries; the greatest since the chapter in Soranos's Gynecology (2nd century A.D.). Though we have learned much in the last century, the point of view which Knowlton here expresses is essentially modern. It has in fact, whether we approve it or not, gained such universal acceptance in the Western World that the overwhelming majority of married couples now employ at some time or other in their married lives some means of controlling fertility. Though, as Dr. Dickinson shows in his appendix, Knowlton's physiology needs amendment in the light of more recent advances, the tone and point of view are, on the whole, surprisingly modern.

Charles Knowlton, M.D. (1800-1850), shares with Robert Dale Owen (1805-1877) the honor of being the founder of the birth control movement in the United States. However, since Owen's Moral Physiology (New York, January, 1831) was essentially an economic and sociological treatise mentioning only one method, withdrawal; and since the Fruits is fundamentally a medical handbook (though written to be understood by the intelligent layman), Knowlton may perhaps be considered the American founder of contraceptive medicine. At all events, this is the first treatise on contraceptive technique by an American physician. The Fruits was first published just a year after Owen's thin book; but it had much greater influence partly because of the unsuccessful prosecution of it (Regina v. Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant)
1 in England in 1877-78.

Hundreds of thousands were then sold in England, where hundreds were sold before. (It was first reprinted in England about 1834.) But we are anticipating our story.

Knowlton, who was born at Templeton, Massachusetts, May 10, 1800, came from a long line of pioneer stock, his English ancestors having first set foot on American soil at Nova Scotia, then Ipswich, Massachusetts, about twenty years after the landing of the Mayflower. His grandfather had been a Revolutionary War captain and Charles's father likewise served when only a lad of fourteen or fifteen. Charles's early life, up to the age of eighteen, was spent on his father's farm where he acquired the skills that helped him fulfillhis early ambition to become a physician. He had received very little formal schooling two months in the summer and two in the winterand he reports in his case book that he was "a confounded dull scholar until fourteen or fifteen years of age," when he "began to make some proficiency in English grammar and arithmetic; but I am not half taught in common spelling-book lessons up to this day [1830]. I never read or studied geography the value of three days in my life; never read history to the amount of a good sized octavo volume, nor half so much in works of fiction as in those of history."

As a "tall, spindle-shanked boy" of frail constitution, he apprenticed himself_as was common in those days _to a physician, paying his tuition of fifty cents a week by doing chores, remaining constantly in debt, frequently forgiven by his teacher. Knowlton studied in this way under two Massachusetts physicians and under one in New Hampshire.

As odd as his character proved original and different were Knowlton's ways of paying for his medical education. At one time he made a hundred thousand shingles by hand; upon another occasion, he made buckets, carted them across the state a hundred miles to Boston where he bartered them for sugar to pay his instructor. When he entered Hanover (now Dartmouth) Medical College in the fall of 1821, he and another student carted the corpse of a horse for which his Professor of Anatomy duly allowed him twenty dollars against his fees. In those days it was difficult to get human cadavers for indispensable anatomical study, and Knowlton consequently got into more than one "Resurrection affair." His first medical teacher had been obliged to "fix" a cemetery keeper after Knowlton had exhumed a corpse for study; and in Worcester in 1824, while still a medical student, he served two months in the Worcester County Jail and was fined costs of $248.26 for having dug up and carried away a corpse at Royalston, Massachusetts. Knowlton avows he was not guilty in this case; but he must have acquired something of a reputation for such activity. He received his medical degree in 1824, his unsigned thesis on anatomy (still in his own handwriting preserved in the Dartmouth College Library) being largely an argument for the indispensability of dissection in the study of anatomy_a point well established now, but not so granted in Knowlton's day (strange as it may seem).

Knowlton had always been odd, his character unique, divergent. Between the ages of 18 and 21 he was hypochondriacal_used to write "Take Care" on his cuff so that he would not over-exert himself. Since, however, he died at the age of fifty of angina pectoris, and it is known that he knew he had a disease of the heart as early as 1833, there was probably wisdom in his prudence. As a youth, prior to his marriage in 1821,
1 he had worried excessively about his "disease" of "gonorrhea dormientum." Even he had been unduly impressed with fear as a result of reading Tissot on masturbation_a book probably the worst on its subject ever written. It may well be that the fears and struggles of this period had great influence in interesting Knowlton in the problems of sexology.

Sociological insight leads one to believe that Knowlton was considered queer mainly because his personality was different. But it was precisely this quality that led to the achievements that have given him a permanent place in the history of medicine. He tells us in his case book that as a boy he was "accounted odd;" that at Dartmouth "the whole school" regarded him as a "fool." In religion he was an agnostic; in philosophy a utilitarian and psychological materialist, in medicine original and danng. In the small town of Western Massachusetts in which he finally settled, Ashfield, his awful religious views were the subject of sermons which divided the town and caused a local furore.
2 An old resident informs me that children were told he had horns. In the living room of his lovely Colonial house, still standing on the main street, he was accustomed on Sunday mornings to play hi~ violin as all the "good" folks went to church. This scandalized them; was proof to some of his bad character. But whenever a baby was to be born he was preferred by the residents for miles around. With the Massachusetts Medical Society, of which he was a fellow, he was ~lwa~in good standing; frequent were his contributions to the Boston Medical &Surgical Journal (now the New England Medical Journal), oldest continuous medical weekly in the United States, and probably the best local journal in the country. At least once the editor commented upon Knowlton's excellent standing and reputation.

This was the man_of whom unfortunately no likeness survives
3 _that produced the Fruits of Philosophy. We have only a hunch why he adopted the odd title: he considered the book a result not of slavish devotion to established mores and ways of thought, which he often thought the fruit of superstition, but, on the contrary, of independent reflection, which he dignified by the term "philosophy."

Knowlton bears the historical distinction of being the first man in birth control history (and the practice is several thousand years old) to go to jail for his opinions _and this in "free" America. The astute "Philosophical Radicals" in England, Jeremy Bentham, James and John Stuart Mill, Francis Place and Richard Carlile, the founders of the English birth control movement as a social movement, all managed to keep out of jail save Carlile, who was not sentenced for publishing Every Woman's Book (1826)_the first complete treatise on birth control in the English language_but for his Republican and Deistic views. Place, though he managed the propaganda of the 1820_S, cleverly kept behind the scenes; and Bentham, though in a public print
4 he recommended the use of the sponge to reduce the English poor rates, so couched his advocacy in obscure language and classical allusions as to render interpretation far from clear and obvious. James Mill in the 1818 Supplement to his Colony article in the Encyclopedia Brittanica was equally equivocal (See Knowlton's quotation of the passage on page 8 infra). Knowlton unwittingly quotes, through Carlile, Place's "Diabolical Handbills"_as Place's frank medical handbills came to be dubbed_and there is clear evidence of the influence on him of several of the English pioneers. Knowlton avows that his "attention was drawn to the subject" by a "perusal of [Owen's] 'Moral Physiology' "; and an inventory of Knowlton's library taken shortly after his death shows that he still possessed a copy as well as two volumes of Owen's periodical, the Free Inquirer.

Owen's method (Coitus interruptus) seemed to Knowlton inadequate; the subject needed fuller medical treatment; most physicians were squeamish about undertaking it, so he set about making himself as useful as possible, and wrote the Fruits in July, 1831. He had gradually come to see the utility of control for reasons which he explains herein, and which need not be summarized here. The book first saw the light anonymously in New York in January, 1832
5 after he had been married ten years.6

The popular Fruits was no sooner published than a series of legal entanglements ensued; and though he suffered much, Knowlton was, in the long run, victorious. Though he was fined in 1832 at Taunton, Massachusetts, and jailed for three months (January-March, 1833) in Cambridge for distributing his book_three months at hard labor despite his angina pectoris_in another jurisdiction (Greenfield, Massachusetts) several attempts to convict always resulted in jury disagreement, and a~nol~ prosequi was finally entered. At the first two

(Taunton and Concord) there was no jury, while at the farmer Knowlton argued his own case; at the Concord trial, resulting in the Cambridge sentence, his attorney seems to have been incompetent, indifferent, or a shyster.

After the Greenfield vindication no one seems to have bothered about the book until the even more conspicuous failure to suppress it in England in 1877-79. All that did was to make the Fruits internationally famous;
7 to sell upwards of one quarter to one-half a million copies (which have now virtually disappeared); to send the British birth rate on a toboggan slide to reach approximate equilibrium social equilibria are constantly being disturbed; that seems to be their nature_at a more economical level. The Vital Revolution in which the Fruits played a conspicuous part had now (1877-80) begun to dawn on Western civilization. By the Vital Revolution I mean the shift in equilibria; the shift from population balance by a high birth and death rate to balance by a low birth and death rate. The social consequences of this change are likely to be second only to those of the Industrial Revolution. And it is unique; nothing like it ever happened before in human history.

A few words ought now to be said about the basis of the present edition. The Fruits has not been re-issued since the early 1880's. Any edition is now scarce; and authentic American editions prior to 1878 excessively rare. Except for the present introduction and Dr. Robert L. Dickinson's "Medical Emendations," the present edition is based on one of two known surviving copies of the edition Knowlton last revised before his death in 1850.

To clarify exactly what that means and does not mean, it is necessary to review briefly the history of the known American editions of Knowlton. (A full list, by the way, will be found in the bibliography to my Medical History of Contraception.) Knowlton was no sooner out of the Cambridge jail_located within a mile or two of Harvard College; that prosecution, however, began in Lowell, not in Concord or Cambridge_than Abner Kneeland, able editor of the Freethought weekly newspaper, the Boston Investigator, issued (without imprint) from his press a second edition. To this edition Knowlton added an appendix written during his incarceration. The demand for the fifty cent treatise was so considerable that two pirated and spurious editions appeared. A unique copy of the second edition (32 mo) is preserved in the Treasure Room of Harvard College's Widener Library. The anonymous first, of which no copy survives (so far, of course, as extensive inquiry has revealed), is known only by the Taunton court record, the Library of Congress copyright copy probably having been lost in a fire. No copies of the third, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth (1839) editions have been found. There are two copies of the fourth. One the writer caused to be deposited in the library of the New York Academy of Medicine; the other, in the writer's collection, he purchased from a well-known literary person of Ashfield connections.

There are two copies of the tenth American (n.p. [Boson], 1877) edition upon which this edition_strictly speaking is based. One is in the library of the Harvard Medical School; the other in my collection. This edition was issued "by subscription" by a group of Boston physicians, some of them connected with the Harvard Medical School, probably for their mutual enlightenment and not for general circulation.
8 Note that the date corresponds with the notoriety of the Bradlaugh-Besant trial, more commonly known as the Knowlton trial_though Knowlton was not on trial in England. The tenth is supposed to be an exact reprint of the ninth (1839), of which no copy survives. The ninth was the last Knowlton revised during his lifetime_eleven years before his death. Consequently, the identical ninth and tenth American editions represent Knowlton's most mature reflections; they correspond with the 1826 issue of Malthus's Essay on Population.

There were a score of English editions; but the texts were corrupt. Not only were typographical errors cumulative, and footnotes added in an effort to bring Knowlton's medicine up to date, but the text was actually altered, interpolations inserted advising new methods, advertisements added, etc. For these and numerous other reasons, my basis has been the uncorrupted, most mature text of the excessively rare tenth American edition.

Finally, a word of warning should be given the reader, especially the lay reader, that the medicine in the present volume is, in many important respects, out of date. This is particularly true of the physiology of conception (Chapter II on "Generation") and of Knowlton_s discussion of masturbation and sterility. Moreover, contraceptive technique has advanced considerably since Knowlton's day. Dr. Dickinson has called attention to some of these matters in his "Medical Emendations." However, it will be clear to the intelligent reader, even if a nonmedical person, that Dr. Dickinson has not attempted to correct all of Knowlton's errors; has not ventured to bring up to date the discussion of all the points Knowlton has treated. This would have been not only a great burden, but would have lengthened unduly the additional material. Moreover, such extensive corrections are unnecessary in a work reprinted as an historical document, significant in the history of medicine and not as a modern handbook on contraceptive technique. For much the same reasons the original punctuation, misspellings, grammatical errors, including perhaps some typographical errors, have been retained. In other words, the book is now re-issued as nearly like the original as possible. Chapters I and III are the most important historically, the portions of most permanent value, as well as, fortunately for the reader, the most readable.

Norman E. Himes


INTRODUCTORY NOTICE, by Prof. Norman E. Himes







MEDICAL EMENDATIONS, by Dr. Robert L. Dickinson


It is now eight years since theory led me to adopt and to recommend to others, a simple, cheap, and harmless method of preventing conception, without requiring any diminution or sacrifice of that enjoyment which attends the gratification of the reproductive instinct. During these eight years I have permitted this work to pass through three editions, comprising in all only seven thousand copies. I have thus limited the circulation of the work with a view of becoming entirely sure, from my own immediate observation and experience, that my method is infallible, before I gave the work free circulation. I can now say, that I have not a shadow of doubt but that the method of preventing conception, under free and entire intercourse, to which I allude, will invariably prove effectual; the directions hereinafter given being duly followed.

To convey a knowledge of this method, or of what may be called the anti-conception art, in such a manner as shall command the confidence of all who may wish to adopt it, is the leading object of this work.

I am aware that with some minds the first impression will be, that this object is not good. But I am also fully satisfied, from what has already fell under my observation, that the more such minds reflect upon the subject the more favorable opinion will they have of it. At any rate it is a subject of too great and abiding influence to be passed over without a serious and impartial examination. I am perfectly willing that the anti-conception art stand or fall according to its merits. But I do desire that these merits be inquired into before judgment is passed _I do desire that the reader will try to divest himself of all prejudice_if sensible he has any_and go along with me into an examination of its merits and demerits.

As this work will of course be restricted to private perusal, I think it will be well to make it a medium of considerable information concerning the genital systems, their diseases, &c., which all people desire to obtain, and ought to possess, but which can be derived only from some medical source. And I give such information the more readily, because the people have been grossly imposed upon by unprincipled persons who have attempted to write popular physiological treatises on generation, &c., when they were totally unqualified for the task, and have consequently presented the reader with a jumble of truth and error, of science and obscenity, which, while it may have been satisfactory to those unqualified to judge of the truth of what they read, must have been productive of quite as much mischief as benefit. I now allude to a work ascribed to Aristotle, and to all similar works that have been circulated more or less privately among the people.

And especially do I allude to Canfield's "Lectures on Sexual Physiology," and to another work entitled "Marriage Physiologically Discussed," probably from the same pen, recently published and falsely purporting to be translated from the French. Neither of these works were written by a person of sound head or pure heart. They are both violations of my copyright. But in the author's attempt to convey my ideas in his own language, and to vary my directions under the false notion that he would thus evade the law of copyright, or escape the charge of plagiarism, he has committed the grossest errors, and discovered an entire ignorance of the subjects of which he treats. And, what is peculiarly provoking, this arch fabricator of dirty stories has the impudence to set forth that he has devoted many years to the subject of "Sexual physiology," &c., and claims to be original, when it is perfectly clear that every useful and almost every decent idea, which his books contain, were gathered from works which had been circulated from one to three years before, and in the city where his were published.

Whoever places any confidence in either of the above mentioned works may find himself deceived, when it may be difficult to remedy the mischief growing out of such deception. There is scarcely a page in the latter part of "Marriage Discussed," but what contains positive error, or discovers great ignorance in the writer.

Ashfield, Franklin Co., Mass., Sept. 4, 1839.

1 The official citation 2 Q.B.D., 569. Reversed by 3 Q.B.D., 607. For an interesting unofficial report of the trial,see The Queen v. Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant. London: Freethought Publishing Co., n.d. (1878), pp. ii, 3-324. For a summary of the report of the trial, see my Medical History of Contraception. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins; London: Allen & Unwin, 1936.

1 To Tabitha F. Stuart of Winchendon, Massachusetts, on April 17, 1821, a few months before he entered medical school.

2 A History of the Recent Excitement in Ashfield. Part 1. [1834] Pp. 24. Part II was never separately published, but appeared as a letter to the editor in the Boston Investigator, September 25, 1835.

3 Fortunately, this is not so. There is a photo at Smith College and it is reproduced in S. Chandrasekhar, _A Dirty, Filthy Book._ (1981) RJC.

4 Norman E. Hines, "Jeremy Bentham and the Genesis of English Neo-Malthusianism," Economic Journal, Historical Supplement on Economic History, February, 1936.

5 By a Physician, Fruits of Philosophy, or the private companion of young married people. Probably 32 mo.

6 Knowlton had five children, one of whom, Charles Lorenzo Knowlton, practiced in Ashfield, later in Northampton.

7 The story of that achievement I hope to tell in considerable detail in a book I hope to publish in 1937, the exact title of which is not get determined. Knowlton's early life and character will be treated; the minutiae of his legal difficulties, the motives that led him to publish the Fruits, its world influence will be considered in as much detail as recent research has been able to extend the bounds of our knowledge.

8 The story of my acquisition of this item as well as that of others, I have told in an article on "The Rarissima of Birth Control," Colophon, Part XX.