MLA 2023: Histories of Childhood and Medicine

deadline for submissions: 
March 1, 2022
full name / name of organization: 
Mary Gryctko / Northeastern University
contact email: 

This panel investigates the centrality of childhood to the rapidly changing medical and scientific landscape of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an era that saw the development of Darwin’s theories of evolution, the rise of wide-spread support within the scientific community for eugenics, and the medicalization of birth, of neurodivergence, and of gender and sex. Papers will interrogate how various scientific/medical discourses used actual children as subjects, and how these discourses relied on the imagined figure of the child to bolster scientific claims around “naturalness,” plasticity, race, and gender, and to justify invasive medical practices performed on both children and adults. While we welcome papers on any aspect of this subject, a particular goal of this panel is to expose the centrality of childhood to the validation of medical efforts that were, at their core, invested in white supremacy. How were specific, racialized, teleological narratives first established by scientific/medical discourses as typical of “normative” child development? What role did white supremacist thought play in the development of these norms? How have these narratives of childhood development been used to naturalize gender norms, neurological norms, and white supremacist notions of development in the present day? How were the experiences of children who did not conform to these norms silenced, or coopted by medical narratives? And how did children’s literature and media on the topics of science, hygiene, and health work to insidiously enlist children in the cause of white supremacy? 

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

The medicalization of intersexuality

The medicalization of trans childhood

The medicalization of birth and pregnancy

Notions of childhood plasticity/medical attempts to shape child bodies

Childhood and eugenics

G. Stanley Hall, Adolescence, and the theory of recapitulation

Phrenology and the depiction of non-white races as “childish”

Discourses of science/medicine in literature/media for children

Hygiene manuals for girls/boys

Global histories of connections between science, medicine, and childhood

Please send 300-word proposals to Mary Gryctko ( by March 1.

This is a non-guaranteed panel, and is co-sponsored by ChLA and the MLA Medical Humanities and Health Studies forum.