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Date Permissions Signed


Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type

Masters Thesis

Department or Program Affiliation


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Seltz, Jennifer, 1970-

Second Advisor

Pihos, Peter Constantine

Third Advisor

Price, Hunter


This thesis focuses on an experimental birth control trial that was conducted in Appalachian Kentucky from 1936-1942. The experiment was designed to establish the effectiveness of a simple spermicidal lactic acid jelly to prevent pregnancy, and it was based on the assumption that poor mountain women reproduced excessively. The trial was funded by a wealthy eugenicist named Clarence Gamble and was guided by a volunteer organization known as the Mountain Maternal Health League (MMHL) in Berea, Kentucky. Though other works have distanced the MMHL from eugenic thought and practice, this thesis argues that Gamble and the women of the MMHL alike sought to manipulate fertility to solve social and economic problems. This thesis looks largely to Gamble’s personal papers and the MMHL’s records – especially promotional materials that reproduced patients’ letters to the League’s nurse – to show that the trial was beset with tensions over the conduct of the experiment and the utility of birth control to respond to individual and regional needs. The trial’s success was limited because patients articulated alternative ideas about birth control. In particular, they relied on their experiences with traditional contraceptive techniques and commercially-available methods to approach this new method. When mountain mothers considered the MMHL’s jelly, they foregrounded their individual and material concerns and rejected the claim that motherhood and family life in the mountains were deficient. While neither Gamble nor the League achieved their larger aims, this thesis argues that their experiment ultimately created an enduring narrative about the region that made mountain women responsible for regional problems and progress.




Western Washington University

OCLC Number


Subjects – Names (LCNAF)

Gamble, Clarence James, 1894-1966; Mountain Maternal Health League of Kentucky

Subject – LCSH

Birth control--Kentucky--Berea; Spermicides--Kentucky--Berea; Women--Appalachian Region; Maternal and infant welfare--Kentucky--Berea; Eugenics--Kentucky--Berea

Geographic Coverage

Berea (Ky.)




masters theses




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