Physician Nathaniel St André was born around 1680 in Switzerland. He came to London at a young age (the exact date is not known) and trained as a surgeon. His knowledge of German led George I to appoint him anatomist to the Royal household in May 1723. He was then living in Northumberland Court, near Charing Cross, holding the post of local surgeon to Westminster Hospital and giving public lectures in anatomy and surgery. In 1726 he treated Alexander Pope and the two became friends.
That same year St André was sent to Godalming, Surrey, to investigate the extraordinary case of Mary Toft who, between September and November 1726, had given birth to seventeen dead rabbits. She told him that during pregnancy she longed for rabbit meat. St André explained the births as a result of ‘maternal impressions’, contending that a pregnant woman’s experiences would imprint directly on the foetus at conception. He published A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits which became an instant best-seller.
Mary eventually confessed her imposture to man-midwife Richard Manningham. She was briefly imprisoned at Bridewell where people flocked to catch a glimpse of the ‘rabbit breeder of Godalming’ until the authorities decided to stop the hysteria by releasing her. She lived the rest of her life in obscurity. Following Toft’s disclosure at least fifteen pamphlets satirised mass delusion; she was parodied in an engraving by William Hogarth; and her account inspired Alexander Pope’s Dunciad (1728) which revolves around a woman who proliferates monsters.
St André was attacked by Paris-born physician Jacques-Aguste [James Augustus] Blondel who, in 1727, published The Strength of Imagination in Pregnant Women Examined. Two years later, he issued a second work, The Power of the Mother’s Imagination over the Foetus Examined. Blondel rejected the power of the mother’s imagination as a populist myth. St André never recovered from the embarrassment of being the ‘rabbit doctor’. He died in poverty in March 1776.