Five Questions with Randi Hutter Epstein, MD

by Victoria Sollecito

Randi Hutter Epstein is the author of new book, Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank. Epstein has an MS from The Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and an M.D. from Yale University School of Medicine. She is currently an adjunct professor at Columbia and has written for the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, Parents, and Harper’s Bazaar as well as numerous other newspapers and magazines. In Get Me Out, Epstein uses her medical knowledge and investigative skills to take an historical (and humorous) look at childbirth through the ages. She spoke to the Women’s History graduate students earlier this month and sat down with Re/Visionist to talk about the birth of her first book.

RE/VISIONIST: Thank you so much for taking some time to talk to us. A lot of our contributors and readers are students still trying to decide what their next step will be. What has your academic/career path been like? How did you get to be where you are?

Randi Hutter Epstein: I studied history and sociology of science as an undergrad at UPenn and then went to Columbia Journalism School followed by med school at Yale. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m still in school. When I started doing research for my book, I thought I should learn more about history so I enrolled in Columbia’s history of public health program–part of the School of Public Health. I took tons of wonderful history classes–and now I’m finishing up the public health part of the degree. In between school, I worked as a reporter for the Associated Press (covering medicine) –which really teaches you how to write quickly. I’ve also been a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines.  I’m also an adjunct at The Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia. I love working with students, and I apparently, can’t get away from school.

RE/V: As graduate students we know the feeling! Is there something you’ve read in your academic career that shaped/changed/informed/inspired your academic pursuits and interests?

RHE: When I was living in London, I had the opportunity to meet Roy Porter, the world’s most prolific medical historian who died at the age of 56 in 2002. Among his many books, he wrote The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: The Medical History of Humanity (Norton: 1997). I’m not sure anyone else could tackle such a massive project, but what inspired me is how he crammed incredible amounts of information into a delightful read.

RE/V: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten (or given) as a writer?

RHE: Barbara Beford, my reporting and writing professor in journalism school, reminded us constantly that readers can put down the book or article any time; you have to hook them along. This was very different from my undergraduate experience in academic writing where I knew that my professors would have to endure my pieces regardless of boring prose or repetition.

RE/V: In your book, Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank, you talk about a folk healer’s advice on conception to Catherine de Medici which included drinking mare’s urine and bathing in cow manure. Was that the most surprising thing you came across in your research?

RHE: No, the research was filled with so many surprises. I could go on and on. Here’s a few more–and not in order:

1. Elisabeth Bing, the founder of Lamaze (Ms. Awake and Alert during Childbirth) had, as she put it, “the works” during her labor.

2. One of my favorite brownstones on the upper west side of Manhattan (I love the ornate exterior) was actually used as a birthing hospital at the turn of the century. It was closed because the neighbors complained that they didn’t want to hear women screaming and dying (this was a surprise for me, but not sure anyone else would care outside of the neighborhood – it didn’t even make it into my book). I jumped with glee when I saw the image of the building in the archives of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College and ran to the librarian with my discovery; I’m not sure she shared my excitement.

3. The egg is the most fascinating cell in the human body (my bias, of course). It’s the largest cell in the body and contains most of the baby-making machinery. Sperm are just mere blobs of genetic material with a tail.

4. In ancient times, the birth gurus thought you needed simultaneous orgasms to make a baby–talk about pressure.

RE/V: What are you working on now?

RHE: I’m writing a few shorter pieces now, one on prenatal ultrasound and another on maternal mortality, but I am really trying to do some research for another book. I do not have any definite ideas, but I am drawn to the subject of infectious disease. I love tiny things that wreak havoc–sperm, eggs, and germs. ▢

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