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Nature's Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology. By Mark V. Barrow Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. xii, 497 pp. $35.00, ISBN 978-0-226-03814-8.)

196 e Journal of American History June 2010
Carla Bittel has written a pathbreaking biog-
raphy of the accomplishments, personal com-
plexities, and contributions of Mary Putnam
Jacobi, the premier science-based female re-
searcher/practitioner of the nineteenth centu-
ry. is is the first full-length study of its kind
and builds beautifully on previous research.
It examines the interplay of Jacobi’s scientific
work, beliefs about gendered relations, social
reform activism, and use of science as female
empowerment. Bittel creates a chronological
and thematic narrative based on scant writ-
ten personal sources, yet she does a magnifi-
cent job of narrating a life by using public
discourse, contemporaries’ perceptions, and
finely nuanced interpretations.
Bittel links the personal and the profession-
al early on: Jacobi’s privileged status as the ed-
ucated eldest daughter in a middle-class New
York Protestant family renowned for its pub-
lishing prowess created in her a disdain for sen-
timent and religiosity. She embraced science as
a panacea, rather than the gendered expecta-
tions of her social class, which upheld moral
authority in the private sphere and exulted ma-
ternity and reproduction as the primary mark-
ers of a woman’s worth.
Jacobi’s illustrious education and presti-
gious professional hospital appointments are
extensive and charted meticulously. Bittel tells
Jacobi’s life story while sculpting her experi-
ences, rewards, insights, disappointments, and
discriminations into a professional identity
and, ultimately, a medical legacy. Her conten-
tious marriage to Abraham Jacobi is detailed
for their shared commitment to improving the
lives of women and children—a passion born
from the death of two of their infants and their
familiarity with the illnesses that were rampant
in urban America.
Bittel’s book offers several stellar strengths,
including its emphasis on the contradictions
in Jacobi’s life: working to better the lives of
women and children while often reinforcing
social class and racial hierarchies; her commit-
ment to feminist causes amid her tempestuous
relationships with female students and political
associates; her dislike of being seen as a prac-
titioner of obstetrics and gynecology while fo-
cusing on the diseases of women and children;
and her detachment from sentiment to the ex-
tent that the medical treatment of the whole
person was minimized. We see Jacobi chal-
lenge a hegemonic view of women’s biological
inferiority and reproductive vulnerability that
was traditionally used to deny educational op-
portunities. Bittel is convincing in her asser-
tion that Jacobi turned biological essentialism
on its head by arguing that bias, rather than
demonstrated proofs, created scientific claims
that limited women. is was epitomized in
her open criticism of Dr. Edward H. Clarke’s
infamous Sex in Education; or, a Fair Chance
for the Girls (1875), expressed in her highly re-
spected e Question of Rest for Women during
Menstruation (1877). She uses the scientific
method (interviews, measured pulse rates, re-
cords of neuromuscular strength) to argue that
menstruation was a “nutritive process” that
sustained women’s health.
Bittel offers a complex portrait of a woman
who refuted biological determinism, embraced
social Darwinism, and rejected separatist poli-
tics that empowered so many nineteenth-cen-
tury women. She raises profound questions:
How do professional women negotiate author-
ity, the legacies of sexual inequality, self-defi-
nitions, and the cost of embracing masculinist
ideals? e book is a must-read; it richly enhanc-
es the scholarship in American cultural studies,
the history of medicine, and womens studies.
Susan E. Cayleff
San Diego State University
San Diego, California
Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from
the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology. By
Mark V. Barrow Jr. (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2009. xii, 497 pp. $35.00, 
Nature’s Ghosts is destined to be a classic in
the history of American conservation. It fills
lacunae in existing conservation histories by
documenting how scientific understandings
of species extinctions unfolded from the mid-
eighteenth century onward; explaining in more
detail than any other work the critical role that
American scientific naturalists played, from the
late nineteenth century, in fostering understand-
ing, concern, and political action in response to
anthropogenic species extinctions in America
and internationally; and demonstrating the pro-
Bron Taylor's review of Mark Barrow's Nature's Ghosts, JAH, v. 97 #1, pps. 196-97
197Book Reviews
found changes in perceptions and values that
have accompanied increasing concern about
species extinctions in America and abroad.
Mark V. Barrow Jr. begins by showing how
until the late eighteenth century the very idea
of extinction was inconceivable. New scientif-
ic evidence, including from the fossil record,
forced reluctant natural historians to recog-
nize that species had and could become ex-
tinct. en Barrow reviews the evidence that
Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin
drew upon to understand evolutionary processes,
demonstrating not only that species evolve from
earlier forms but that this necessarily involves the
extinction of less well-adapted life forms.
Subsequent chapters trace the growing re-
alization that human actions force the decline
of many species populations—driving some
to extinction—and periodically notes the feel-
ings of loss and responsibility to prevent an-
thropogenic extinctions that were expressed
by naturalists. Barrow notes the evidence that
some naturalists and their collaborating con-
servationists had deep feelings of kinship with
nonhuman beings. Barrow also contends that
many of those naturalists were too quick to as-
sume that a species was already doomed, while
some also continued to kill endangered spe-
cies or hinder their reproduction, ironically,
in the name of science. He provided detailed
case studies of species that have been saved
(the American bison and the alligator), those
that became extinct (the heath hen and pas-
senger pigeon), and those that exist today only
due to heroic if tardy intervention but whose
fate remains uncertain (the whooping crane
and the California condor). He also discuss-
es species that are probably extinct but might
still exist (such as the ivory-billed woodpeck-
er). Barrow’s account illuminates the influ-
ence of American naturalists on efforts to pre-
vent extinctions in Africa, Latin America, and
through international institutions, including
environmental agencies under the United Na-
tions umbrella.
To avoid misperceptions, such as the idea
that naturalists were the central driving force
behind America’s conservation movement,
Nature’s Ghosts should be read along with the
wider corpus of American conservation histo-
ry, expecially those by Donald Worster, Rod-
erick Nash, Steven Fox, Catherine Albanese,
Lawrence Buell, and Robert Gottlieb. Barrows
work would have been richer had he explored
in more detail the affective, religious, and ethi-
cal dimensions of those trends. He says little,
for example, about the nature spirituality and
biocentric ethics of Henry David oreau,
John Muir, or Rachel Carson and overlooks
the increasing deployment of religious termi-
nology to argue for species protection. He also
says nothing about academic biocentric phi-
losophy, including that of Arne Naess’s deep
ecology and J. Baird Callicott’s defense of Aldo
Leopold’s land ethic. Yet biocentric spirituality
and ethics influenced many ardent biodiver-
sity defenders, including the founders of the
Society for Conservation Biology, whose im-
portance Barrow properly notes. ese com-
ments do not denigrate Barrow’s achievement
in Nature’s Ghosts, but they do illustrate that
his work is mutually dependent on the body of
scholarship on which it draws and to which it
most admirably contributes.
Bron Taylor
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida
Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its
Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York.
By Donna Dennis. (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 2009. x, 386 pp. $29.95,
 978-0-674-03283-5.)
e name Anthony Comstock stands out in
the annals of nineteenth-century moral re-
form, but scholars have paid far less attention
to Comtsock’s targets and the lengthy ante-
cedents to his antiobscenity crusade. Moral
reform organizations such as Comstock’s
New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
left a paper trail that was much clearer than
that left by pornographers, and scholarship
has reflected this fact. Donna Dennis’s Licen-
tious Gotham serves as a corrective to this gap
in the historical record.
Dennis breaks the anonymity surrounding
obscenity publication in nineteenth-century
New York, introducing us to a dense network
of pornography producers who occupied Nas-
sau Street in Manhattan. e sale of “fancy
goods” (sexually explicit illustrations and sto-
ries) received little notice from legal authorities
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