CHARLES KNOWLTON1 (May 10, 1800 - Feb. 20, 1850), physician, born in Templeton,
Worcester County, Mass., was the son of Stephen and Comfort (White) Knowlton
and was descended from English forebears who emigrated to America in the
seventeenth century. He spent his early life on his father's farm, ardently
desiring a medical education. He was mainly self taught beyond the early
grades except for his studies with various practitioners in Massachusetts
and New Hampshire. Continuing his studies after his marriage on Apr. 17,
1821, to Tabitha F. Stewart (Stuart?) of Winchendon, Mass., he received
the degree of M.D. from the medical department of Dartmouth College in 1824.
He did little practising in western Massachusetts during the next few years,
being mainly interested in preparing his Elements of Modern Materialism
(1829). One of the earliest books on philosophical materialism, perhaps
the first by an American author, issued in this country and almost unreadable
now, it nevertheless contains interesting anticipations of many modern views.
The work which made his reputation was the anonymous publication in New
York of the Fruits of Philosophy; or, the Private Companion of Young
Married People (1832). A second edition, not anonymous, was brought
out in Boston in 1833 undoubtedly by Abner Kneeland, editor of the Boston
Investigator. This was followed by other American editions up to the
ninth (1839), which was reprinted by subscription (1877) on the initiative
of a group of physicians at the Harvard Medical School.
Though a temperate discussion of the desirability of birth control, on medical,
economic, and social grounds, the treatise, flaunting many accepted conceptions
and values of the period, did not escape court action. The author was prosecuted
and fined at Taunton, Mass., in 1832, and in Cambridge, Mass., he was sentenced
on Dec. 10, 1832, to three months' imprisonment at hard labor in the House
of Correction. Prosecution did not stop the sale of the work, however, and
at Greenfield, Mass., Knowlton was again haled into court but in this instance
the prosecution, originating with an Ashfield clergyman, resulted in a nolle
prosequi, the jury having been unable to agree on two previous occasions.
In this trial, Knowlton's medical partner, Dr. Roswell Shephard , was a
Reprinted in England from 1834 on by various freethought publishers, the
Fruits of Philosophy circulated quietly until it became the subject
of the famous test case, The Queen vs. Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant
(2 Law Reports, Queen's Bench Division, 569, reversed in 3 Law
Reports, Queen's Bench Division, 607. See also the special report of
the trial: In the High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division, June
18, 1877. The Queen v. Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, 1877). The
effect of the prosecution, eventually successful for the defendants, was
electric. Circulation, which previously had not exceeded a thousand a year,
reached a quarter of a million within a few years. It attained half a million
if one includes the circulation of several provincial editions and of Annie
Besant's Law of Population, which first appeared in January 1879
to replace the somewhat antiquated text of the Fruits of Philosophy.
Dutch and French editions show that Knowlton exerted an influence on
the Continent as well. Moreover the prosecution undoubtedly created a market
for the development of a new contraceptive technique (introduced into England
probably by Dr. Henry A. Allbutt) which has since revolutionized modern
clinical procedure in the western world.Between 1876 and 1891 probably two
million books and tracts furnishing elaborate contraceptive information
were disseminated in England. Knowlton's other writings include: Two
Remarkable Lectures Delivered in Boston, by Dr. C Knowlton, on the Day of
his Leaving the Jail at East Cambridge, Mar. 31, 1833, Where he Had Been
Imprisoned for Publishing a Book (1833); Address of Dr. Charles Knowlton,
Before the Friends of Mental Liberty, at Greenfield, Mass., and Constitution
of the United Liberals of Franklin County, Mass. (1845); and A History
of the Recent Excitement at Ashfield, part I (1834), the second part
of which appeared in the Boston Investigator, Sept. 25, 1835.
For an obituary and incomplete autobiographical sketch see the Boston
Medical and Surgical Journal, Sept. 10, 24, 1851. See also Norman E.
Himes, "Charles Knowlton's Revolutionary Influence on the English Birth-Rate,"
New England Journal of Medicine, Sept. 6, 1928. N. E. H. [Norman
of American Biography Vol. V, 471-472.