Robert Latou Dickinson
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Robert Latou Dickinson was born on February 21, 1861 in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was the son of Horace and Jeannette Latou Dickinson. He became a noted obstetrician, gynecologist, surgeon, research scientist, author, and public health educator. He also was an unusually prolific artist, carver and sculptor, who used his skills to illuminate his professional work — and throughout his personal life to delight friends and family.
According to James Reed, as a boy of ten, Rob Dickinson was trying to beach a boat that he and his father had built. An eddy drove the metal prow into Dickinson's abdomen, gashing it deeply. Holding the two sides of the wound together and some internal organs inside, Dickinson dragged himself to shore; his injury was stitched by a lay person, but it took a long time to heal and a scar remained for the rest of his life. Thereafter, Dickinson determined to become a doctor.
He sketched all his life, including delightful if irreverent sketches in the edges of his school books. He attended the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and schools in Germany and Switzerland, sketching and studying classical art all the way. After his return, Dickinson studied at the Long Island College Hospital, and received his medical degree in 1882. He then practiced obstetrics and gynecology in Brooklyn. He became Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Brooklyn Hospital and at Methodist Episcopal Hospital. During the First World War, he was Assistant Chief of the Medical Section of the Council of National Defense, and Medical Advisor on the General Staff. He served a turn as President of the American College of Surgeons, which he had helped to create, President of the American Gynecological Society, and Chairman of the Obstetrics section of the American Medical Association.
He married Sarah Kidder Truslow, who worked with many New York human services organizations, including the Young Women's Christian Association and the Traveler's Aid Society. They had three children: Dorothy, Jean, and Margaret, who died in infancy. Dorothy married George Barbour and had three sons, Hugh Barbour, Ian Barbour and Freeland, who died in medical school. Jean married Truman Squire Potter and had four children, Frances, David, Lincoln and Mary.
Throughout his life Dickinson fascinated family and friends with his constant sketching; some sketches, including those for the Washington Walk Book, are at the Library of Congress Thousands of Dickinson sketches are of places, trees, vistas, figures, and boats, notably in parks, on mountain trails, at Squam Lake in New Hampshire, and in China. One of Dickinson's folios was full of colored sketches of gaily painted Chinese junks. Many sketches became frontispieces and cards.
Dickinson was one of the first physician-scientists to obtain detailed sexual histories of his patients. A painstakingly accurate pen-and-ink artist, he made many drawings and sketches during a patient interaction. Such sketches included drawings of the patients' genitalia. Over his career he collected about 5,200 sexual case histories. Dickinson was himself the medical illustrator for many medical publications and textbooks. He used electric cauterization for the treatment of cervicitis and for intrauterine ablation for sterilization. In the twenties he closed his practice and focused on sexual research and contraception and other public health education.
In 1923 Dickinson founded the National Committee on Maternal Health. This society addressed problems of infertility, birth control, and sexual behavior. Dickinson was particularly interested in homosexual desire in women, which he believed was a threat to heterosexual procreation and marriage. As an ardent supporter of birth control and the eugenics movement, he gave professional support to Margaret Sanger, but opposed her in the question who should control birth control: Dickinson thought that physicians should be in charge of the process. He studied the coital interaction, published his research, and debunked sexual myths such as that the penis and cervix would interlock during human copulation. Publication of his writings was hampered by the Comstock laws until 1931. Dickinson's work strongly influenced Alfred Kinsey. Much of Dickinson's later work was to do with human homosexuality, including his 1935-1941 human study in New York, funded by the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants, in which he attempted to locate the psychogenic and biological source of homosexuality. Dickinson believed that in finding these sources, he might be able to intervene and prevent homosexual desire from manifesting into the social problem he saw it as being.
His collaboration with the sculptor Abram Belskie resulted in the creation of many life-size medical models. Their Birth Series, depicting the processes of gestation and delivery, was displayed at the 1939 New York World's Fair and may be seen at the Science Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. In later years the two artists worked with plastic and latex—pioneering work in medical modeling. At the time of Dickinson's death, the Dickinson/Belskie studio was full of engaging models of women and children, including a sculpture of the (then) "largest baby in the world" with the "smallest viable baby in the world" seated on its lap.
According to the eulogy given by his grandson, Dr. Dickinson was responsible for many advances in medicine that are now standard practice. One such practice is that of tying off the umbilical cord after a birth before severing the cord.
Dickinson and his wife and family walked and hiked, sailed and canoed all over the world, notably in China, in Europe, in Washington, DC (when he was briefly Acting Surgeon General) on Squam Lake in New Hampshire, and in New York. He illustrated many editions of the New York Walk Book and published Palisades Interstate Park, written and illustrated by him in 1921 for the American Geographical Society of New York. Dickinson was, all his life, a vigorous outdoorsman. He enjoyed swimming and diving, doing backflips at Squam Lake well into his eighties. He also worked for many hours a week, improving hiking trails at Squam and helping friends and family with outdoor projects. He was particularly sensitive to color and shadow, throughout the seasons and in different lighting, and took great joy in observations and sketches of "small things" like a gnarly tree root or an exceptional spray of pine needles.
A man of deep Christian faith, he was associated with Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn for more than fifty years, before he moved to Manhattan. Robert Dickinson died on November 29, 1950 at the home of his daughter Jean Dickinson Potter, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Until the day he died he was revising sketches for a new edition of the New York Walk Book.
Books by Robert Latou Dickinson include:
- Palisades Interstate Park, 1921
- The New York Walk Book, many editions in the 1920s - present. Early editions by Torry, Place and Dickinson.
- The Safe Period as a Birth Control measure, 1927.
- The Birth Control Movement, 1927
- Control of Conception: An Illustrated Medical Manual (Medical Aspects of Human Fertility), 1931
- Human Sex Anatomy, 1932 and 1949 and 1971
- Thousand Marriages: A Medical Study of Sex Adjustment, 1933 and 1970
- The Single Woman: A Medical Study in Sex Education, by Robert Latou Dickinson and Lura Beam, 1934
- Techniques of Conception Control, 1942 and 1950
- Atlas of Human Sex Anatomy, 1949
- Birth atlas: Of twenty four sculptures on fertilization, steps of growth, stages of labor and involution (Dickinson series of teaching models), 1953, 1960 and 1968
The Robert Latou Dickinson Papers were donated to the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine and the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research by Dickinson's daughter, Dorothy Dickinson Barbour. *The Robert Latou Dickinson Papers, 1881-1972, and 1883-1950, record much of Dickinson’s work on anatomical models at the New York Academy of Medicine. They document some of his professional involvement in the Birth Control Federation of America, National Committee on Maternal Health, and the Euthanasia Society of America. The collection contains some of Dickinson's correspondence, research and writing files; patient case records, illustrations, and some lantern slides from his research and professional activities in the birth control movement.
- James Reed, From Private Vice to Public Virtue: The Birth Control Movement and American Society Since 1830 (Basic Books, 1978), Chapters 11-13
- See Library of Congress
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- Works by or about Robert Latou Dickinson at Internet Archive
- The Birth Series may be seen at the Museum of Science in Boston
- Some of his sketches are in the Harvard Medical School Countway Library, and some may be found on the Internet
- See also the holdings at Countway Library
- Erwin J. Haeberle, Short biography of R. L. Dickinson, Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia
- Matthew DeGennaro: Robert Latou Dickinson: An American Sexologist
- "Tampons as menstrual guards", "The Dickinson Report," 1945
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Robert L. Dickinson