‘Maternal impression’ is the belief that a mother’s actions and experiences during pregnancy will shape the physiology and character of her child. It was a medieval idea that held sway until the late 19th century.
One 19th-century physician who perpetuated it was Dr Walter Y. Cowl, a New York obstetrician and homeopathist. Writing in 1878, Cowl repeated numerous anecdotal accounts of maternal impression. In Rome, “ugly boors and women with hideous features” give birth to “sons and daughters of surprising beauty” – because they spend their lives looking at “grand statues and paintings”. A Boston lawyer bore a striking resemblance to Napoleon Bonaparte because his parents, obsessed with the French leader, had Napoleon’s picture in their bedroom.
In a cautionary tale to mothers, Cowl refers to a case originally described by Hester Pendleton, where a woman who studied while pregnant gave birth to a big-headed child:
“For some months previous to the birth of her fifth child [she] exercised her mental powers to their fullest extent. She attended lectures, both literary and scientific, and read much of such works as tended to strengthen the reason and judgement… Her labour, always before short and easy, was this time two days in duration and exceedingly painful, owing to a very large foetal head, with especial prominence of the forehead. The child, a son, now grown, bids fair to outstrip in ability all her other children.”