Interim report: Book on Hermann Knaus
Austrian born gynaecologist Hermann Knaus (1892-1970) saw himself as a doctor, physiologist and surgeon but did not consider the possible political consequences of his work. He wanted to understand and explain the effect of hormones on the female cycle, in its different stages, and of pregnancy. That his scientific findings would create such an uproar came as a surprise to him: in the scientific community which had to give up previous beliefs, and in the public who saw him as their ‘ally’, who helped them to decide themselves about time and number of their offspring. On the political stage his findings were seized on, and used for their own goals, by different actors: Socialists versus Conservatives, Catholic Church versus Liberals, Nazis versus so called Non-Germans and foreign countries etc.
The consequences of the political attention towards Knaus’ scientific work resulted in personal attacks against him. For example the banning of his textbook by the Nazis in Germany (1934-1938), in attempts to expell him from his position as head of the gynaecological department at the German University of Prague, to prevent him from getting a new job at any university clinic in Austria (after 1945), etc. Even the fact that he was not elected as a Nobel prize laureate (1936) can be seen as a consequence of the scientific field he had chosen: Female menstruation and ways to prevent or enable pregnancies were not seen as a respectable and valuable topic worth such an honour. In fact, ‘female topics’ had been blocked from the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine up until the year 2008.
Summarising these observations one can say that the approach of society, church and politics towards birth control and the right of self-determination which was present at Knaus’ time was reflected in the way he and his scientific work was treated. Before we started to work on his biography this observation was not as obvious as it is at the end of the project. Without exaggeration one can say that Knaus is the perfect witness of seven decades of the history and development of birth control. This verdict also takes into account Knaus’ fight against the introduction and acceptance of ‘the pill’: A pioneer who has contributed essentially to the development and widespread practice of contraceptive options tried to prevent further developments to protect – as he saw it – virtue and morality.
To make sure that the biography of Knaus will be suitable for and used by various professions dealing with birth control, pregnancy prevention, history of medicine, and the sociology of self-determination, we invited ten experts from different fields to check through the manuscript before publishing it. Their comments and remarks were thoroughly considered and led to an intense process of adapting conclusions. Although Knaus himself published widely, there existed very little material about him. For this reason we also asked a member of Knaus’ family plus a professor of Medical History to go through the whole text to make sure that personal and historic facts are presented correctly.