Drysdale, George (1825-1904) (birth control)

The most influential of the topics dealing with contraceptives in the mid-nineteenth century, after the spate of the booklets and pamphlets that appeared after the efforts of Francis Place, was that of George Drysdale. Born in Edinburgh, the son of Sir William Drysdale, George Drysdale was a brilliant pupil, known by his fellow students as Rex, or king. He signed many of his contributions to the National Reformer, published by Charles Bradlaugh, as G. R. for George Rex. While studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh and having been intrigued by economic ideas of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus, he wrote a book entitled Physical, Sexual, Natural Religion. Unwilling to antagonize his mother over his unorthodox religious opinions and his challenges to traditional morality, he signed it simply as “By a Student of Medicine.”

Drysdale took as his mission the need to emphasize that sexual intercourse could and should be a delightful thing. Preventing it from being so, he believed, was the ever-present possibility of children, and because he believed that overpopulation itself was a major cause of poverty, he believed that birth control was a solution. He also believed that the fear of having more children not only encouraged men to turn to prostitutes but was a strong inhibitor of a woman’s willingness to express her sexuality. On the other hand, Drysdale also believed that immoderate amounts of sexual activity were dangerous, and he had a horror of variant sexuality, including masturbation. Still, Havelock Ellis, the great English sexologist of the first part of the twentieth century, was greatly influenced to enter the sex field by his reading of Drysdale.

Only six pages of Drysdale’s more than four hundred pages of Physical, Sexual, and Natural Religion were devoted to contraception. He discussed five techniques, two of which, the sponge and the douche, he advised were to be used together. His douche solution, however, was simply tepid water, which he held would flush out the sperm from the vagina, after which the sponge could be removed. He also advocated that women use a safe period, which he said was from two to three days before menstruation to eight days after but this would be useful only to women who had very regular menses because otherwise predicting the onset of menstruation two days before it begins is difficult. Moreover, the recommendation for the safe period often depended upon how the woman measured the ceasing of menstruation. If she could tell and if she tried to follow the method to the letter, she might still get pregnant because the fertility cycle was not fully explained until well into the twentieth century. Drysdale himself was somewhat skeptical about the effectiveness of using a safe period for having intercourse but held that, although the method was not infallible, it would reduce the likelihood of conception. On the other possible procedures he discussed he was far more negative. Coitus interruptus, he wrote, was “physically injurious” because it might cause mental disorders and illness in the man and it also interfered with pleasure.The condom, in his mind, was unaesthetic, dulled enjoyment, and might even produce impotence. The section on birth control was often extracted from his major work, which by the time the thirty-fifth and last edition appeared in 1905 had sold some 88,000 copies. These extracts, or penny pamphlets, went under a wide variety of titles, and some of them were by other authors who simply adopted his methods as their own.

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