The science of the ‘natural’ family unit

Politicians such as Cory Bernardi hold strong views on the family – but where does the idea of the natural family unit come from? AAP Image/Alan Porritt

It’s no secret that South Australian senator Cory Bernardi is a fan of what he calls “traditional family structures”. His views are back in the news this week with the release of his latest book, The Conservative Revolution.

But is there anything natural or even historical about the two-parents-plus-kids model?

Some concepts about ideal units and structures in the natural world, including the family, became sharply defined in the early modern period, after 1450, when print spread particular voices far and wide.

Many of the dominant thinkers and published writers in science and medicine at that period were strongly influenced by their own domestic relationships and ideas about godly family organisation in how they interpreted the world around them.

Scientists get interested in families

German physician Georg Pictorius. Wikimedia Commons

Diseases had a profound impact on family experiences in the early modern period, with illness taking a particular heavy toll on children. Blood-related nuclear units were by no means the common experience of family life.

The advent of print at this era allowed especially university-trained practitioners to present their views on how best to preserve health, with pediatric texts undergoing a particular surge in print.

Practitioners’ ideas about the family unit were crucial in how they developed these works.

The French physician Simon de Vallambert marketed directly to female readers in his 1565 text on looking after children. Vallambert insisted that it was wives and mothers who would be held responsible for the health of their families, and especially its children – and shaped his arguments accordingly.

Physicians also drew on their own family experiences in their texts in important ways.

German physician Georg Pictorius recalled his wife finding threadworms in the anus of his own children in his 1576 tome, Frawenzimmer – which devoted seven chapters to the topic of worms. (Girolamo Mercuriale in his 1583 De Morbis Puerorum topped that, one third of this text concerned worms.) Such personal experiences could govern the type of science and medical problems scientists worked on.

Concepts of family as a source for scientific understanding

Ideas about the family acted as a source of scientific understanding more broadly.

The emerging agrarian science of husbandry promoted a vision of the patriarchal father presiding over the domestic unit. Studies of bee colonies were typically constructed according to the organisation model of the patriarchal statecraft, mistaking the queen for a king bee.


When English beekeeper Charles Butler identified in his 1609 The Feminine Monarchie that the queen bee was in fact female, he simply recast his vision of bees’ social structure – now it was a perfect model of industrious feminine domesticity.

Bees were problematic in other ways too. They were not properly domestic for they did not require human assistance for their subsistence, reproduction or care.

Thus, early modern texts offered methods to retain bees in one’s household, including tanging (banging domestic pots and pans to freeze the flight of bees), and telling the bees (informing bees of deaths or marriages within the domestic unit, to prevent their flight in search of the missing family members). These recommendations in husbandry and agrarian texts were grounded in contemporary notions of family roles and relationships.

How families shaped scientific knowledge

Early modern families also helped to produce scientific knowledge.

Manuscript recipe and remedy books reveal how the household acted as a knowledge community with shared authorship and a tradition of experimental practice. These books show how the domestic sphere combined information and experiences of family, friends, professional practitioners they observed at work, as well as the commercial sector. It had its own specific instruments and equipment, just as the university laboratory of the period did.

Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach der Altere. Wikimedia Commons

Domestic ideologies and household spaces also informed the creation of science.

Within bachelor communities of the universities, scholars recast their role as parental figures by taking on boarders. Other scholars’ research was produced and communicated through their households, beyond the university community and before the advent of exclusive scientific societies.

German theologian Martin Luther made casual remarks about the work of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus at his dinner table that later appeared in his Tischreden, widely read in Protestant groups.

Scholars such as John Dee, Mary Sidney Herbert and Lady Grace Mildmay constructed laboratories and experiments in their homes.

Family members were enlisted as wives, sons, daughters, both to become assistants and as objects of study. John Dee, for example, recorded his wife Jane’s menstrual cycle for scientific study. Jane also participated as a member of the laboratory team in her household.

But who held authority in the domestic sphere could be tricky to work out.

John Aubrey complained in a biographical study of the English mathematician William Oughtred that the latter’s wife “would not allow him to burne a candle after supper, by which means many a good notion is lost, and many a problem unsolved”.

Families and the transmission of science

A portrait of Mary Sidney Herbert. Wikimedia Commons

Families also transmitted natural and medical knowledge. Many unregulated healers insisted that they had received their training from female relatives, as did Isabel de Montoya when she was called before the Inquisition of New Mexico in the 1660s.

Family heritage as a pathway to medical professions was common across Jewish, Islamic and Christian groups in Europe.

Careers were established through marriage and inheritance of scientific equipment, laboratories, and even investigations. Much to the amusement of his students, Thomas Clayton, succeeded his father as Regius Professor of Medicine at Pembroke College Oxford in 1647 – but could not endure the sight of blood.

The statutes of some medical guilds allowed widows to maintain a husband’s clientele and pass it on to their children, creating the possibility for a family dynasty of specific medical knowledge. In England, the secret of the forceps was passed for many years from father to son within the Huguenot refugee family, the Chamberlens.

Family or scientific knowledge: which came first?

Medical and natural knowledge was underpinned by assumptions about family as a model for the natural world, for scientific teamwork, for medical care, for authority to develop ideas and to transmit them.

Personal experiences of family life were a critical touchstone for scientists and physicians. Some were inspired to create knowledge because of their family lives; others grounded their particular focus in their identities as husbands, fathers, or sons, and for yet others, such roles provided a justification of their authority to speak on scientific topics.

Family experiences were both the product of early modern science as well as one of the most potent forces shaping this knowledge tradition. There was nothing natural about the family unit that scientists and physicians assumed, “discovered” in the world around them – and then reproduced through their texts.

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