Robinson, William Josephus (1867-1936) (birth control)

William Josephus Robinson, M.D., was the first American physician to demand that contraceptive knowledge be taught to medical students and was a strong fighter against moral reformer Anthony Comstock. Robinson was probably the most influential and popular of the American physicians writing on birth control in the first three decades of the twentieth century, carrying on the work begun by Edward Bliss Foote and others. Robinson was, however, much more a part of the medical establishment. Until 1912 the American Medical Association for the most part supported the Comstock law, which, among other things, suppressed the distribution of contraceptive information, and part of Robinson’s mission was to educate his medical colleagues.

Robinson made a strong case against legal interference with the physician-client relationship and believed that the physician had a right to prescribe contraception to a patient desiring it and that such an action was medically and socially desirable. In the journals that he edited, the American Journal of Urology and the Medico-Pharmaceutical Critic and Guide (1898-1915), afterward the Medical Critic and Guide, he constantly editorialized on the importance of contraception. He baited Comstock and the censors in his popular manual published in 1904 entitled Fewer and Better Babies; or, The Limitation of Offspring. Deliberately left blank were five pages in two topics entitled “The Best, Safest, and Most Harmless Means for the Prevention of Conception” and “Means for the Prevention of

Conception Which are Disagreeable, Uncertain, or Injurious,” but that included a statement that he would include such information as soon as the “brutal” Comstock laws were removed from the statute books. Robinson wrote that the kind of censorship preventing him from giving his readers such information was as “real and as terrifying as any that ever existed in darkest Russia.” He believed that it hung like a Damocles sword over the head of every honest radical writer, and even worse than not being permitted to mention the safe and harmless means of contraception was that a physician could not even discuss the unsafe and injurious means that so many women had attempted to use.

Robinson also wrote a leaflet in 1904 aimed at physicians and describing contraceptive techniques. He later wrote a popular book entitled Practical Prevenception. He is said to have induced Dr. Abraham Jacobi, the founder of pediatrics in the United States, to include a discussion of contraception in his 1912 Presidential Address to the American Medical Association, the first time that organization broached the subject. In addition to his work on contraception, Robinson also wrote widely on sexological subjects and spoke out strongly against the nineteenth century emphasis on continence. He held that the sexual instinct was natural and important and he proved to be a significant force in eliminating the limitations put on the topic of sexuality by prudish ignorance. His son, Victor Robinson, also a physician, was also active in the campaign for contraception, although not as much as his father had been.

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