Here’s a truly strange case that was reported in the Journal de Médécine de Paris in 1881. It concerns an elderly woman who was believed to have fallen pregnant. Such tales were commonly reported in the early medical literature – there are many to be found in 18th-century journals, for instance – but these examples were often supported only by hearsay, or the evidence of a single witness. Most would not have stood up to anything like rigorous scrutiny.
What makes this example so odd is that it was submitted by physicians at a major Paris hospital and accepted for publication in a respected journal – at a period when most medics accepted the axiom that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The facetious tone of the report does little to reassure the reader of its veracity. The unusual event was reported by a surgeon identified only as M Latour:
We have just admitted to the Clinic of the School of Medicine a seventy-year-old woman in an interesting condition… interesting to the staff, that is. This brave woman lives in Garches.
Today part of the Parisian suburbs, but in the 19th century it was a village a few miles west of the capital.
She is known as the widow T. Strongly adhering to the principle that “wine is the milk of old men” she is an inveterate drinker, and about six months ago, returning home after a rather more prolonged binge than usual, she had sat down by the side of the road, waiting until she felt able to continue on her way.
Truly heroic drinking for a woman of her advanced years.
A young man of twenty-four, who knew her, perceived her in this state, and suggested that he escort her home. The widow T. agreed, and as night was falling and the woods unsafe, she offered her gallant knight a bed for the night.
The author draws a discreet veil over what happened next.
It was not one night that he remained, but four: it seems that his audacity was rewarded and that he had found treasures that were thought to have been lost for a long time. In short, to her great astonishment, the septuagenarian Venus was one day obliged loosen her belt.
M Latour’s gift for euphemism is certainly impressive. He cannot bring himself to write that the young man seduced the old lady, who later found her abdomen swelling alarmingly.
A midwife whom she went to consult, and then the physician of Garches, summoned in his turn, could only note the fact that autumn (almost winter, in fact) had bestowed the fruits denied by the spring.
This metaphor is at least rather poetic.
In short, the beautiful lover is at the Clinic, where she is being pampered, or cherished, because the case is a most curious one. The inhabitants of Garches are anxiously awaiting the result … they are even willing, if necessary, to contribute to the cost of baptism and – who knows? – to the wedding expenses: spouses should be properly matched.
This final phrase (‘il faut des epoux assortis’ in the original) is tricky to translate, since it’s an old French proverb, used as the title of satirical cartoons, novels and at least one play. It’s an allusion that would have raised a smile from contemporary readers.
If she gave birth, and it was possible to verify her age, she would be comfortably the oldest mother on record. At least, among those who have conceived naturally: since the advent of IVF there have been numerous examples of sexagenarian mothers, and in 2009 an Indian woman gave birth to her first child at the age of seventy.
But did the widow T. have her child? Frustratingly, I can find no further trace of her. It’s possible, of course, that she was never pregnant. The doctors may have been wrong, failing to diagnose another condition that produced the signs of pregnancy. The journal article caused something of a storm in the European medical press – but mysteriously things went very quiet thereafter. That silence, I suspect, speaks volumes.