“An Essay Upon Nursing” 1748 | Primary Source Read Along

This is a read-along of William Cadogan’s letter to the governors of the Foundling Hospital in London, published in 1748. Cadogan doesn’t approve of the way women or old-timey doctors managed infant care because their approaches aren’t natural. He proposes a feeding schedule that would result in malnutrition for any infant: four feedings in twenty-four hours, during daytime hours only, is not enough.

Please don’t follow his advice on nursing.

I’m not providing this as a recommendation on infant care but to help people engage with primary sources; to understand what William Cadogan, as a product of his time, thought about what was wrong with infant care in the past and present, and how things should be done.

In An Essay on Nursing, Cadogan uses the classic “appeal to nature” (fallacy) which promises to create a happy, healthy baby who never cries. This angle is repeated by men selling infant care books and gear to this very day. In the 18th century, Cadogan looked at peasants as an example of happy healthy poor people who lived in harmony with nature; today, it’s poor indigenous “ancient” cultures that are more natural and wise. In either case, they use idealized, stereotyped, fallacious or outright mendacious claims to support their claims.

Cadogan’s agenda seems to be taking the power over infant care away from women, whether midwives, mothers, or wet nurses, and giving it to “men of sense” (men who agree with him). Notice it’s about the power, not the labour, the women still need to do the work but under the supervision and direction of men. This was the start of the trend for what has been called the medicalization of childcare.

As obnoxious as his bad advice is, he was giving it because he was concerned about the high rate of infant mortality and he recognized that something could and should be done about it. That wasn’t always the case: it was long thought by the majority that babies just die easily /shrug/ God’s Will, etc. It was the rise of pediatrics, the development of the scientific method and its use in public health, which has helped us reduce infant mortality in some parts of the world (there is still a lot of work to do).

Today, when western writers publish books centered on an appeal to nature or tradition– when they exploit poor families for their ancient wisdom– it’s to reduce tantrums not mortality; to sell a lifestyle rather than to preserve lives. With that in mind, I suppose Cadogan’s essay is comparatively less obnoxious.

Well, I hope you enjoy this format! I have a couple more of these lined up. If you have a primary source you would like to have me create a read-along for, please let me know.

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3 responses to ““An Essay Upon Nursing” 1748 | Primary Source Read Along”

  1. You say “Please don’t follow his advice on nursing”, but might it be worth expanding your text to include some examples of good advice in the essay? He gives a lot of advice in his 34 pages, and surely some of it – such as arguing against swaddling clothes – was good?


    • Thank you for the feedback! 🙂 Swaddling clothes weren’t/aren’t necessarily bad, rather he had a philosophical dislike of swaddling because it seemed less natural to him (and because it’s something he associated with female caretakers). My original intention with the primary source read-alongs was just to provide primary source material in another format without telling listeners/viewers what to think about it, however, it might be a good idea for me to do follow-up discussions on the source material.


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