The Sex Side of Life

By Rebecca Pou, Project Archivist

September 30-October 6, 2012 is Banned Books Week, an annual event that celebrates the freedom to read and calls attention to books than have been banned or challenged. While Banned Books Week was first celebrated in 1982, printed matter was being censored long before that, as shown in a collection here at NYAM. In the Mary Ware Dennett Case Collection, one finds a controversy surrounding a small pamphlet and the resulting rally against its suppression.

This small collection centers on Mary Ware Dennett (1872-1947) and the case against her. She wrote a pamphlet titled The Sex Side of Life, which explained human reproduction to children.
Title from front cover of the "Sex Side of Life" pamphlet

First published as an article in the Medical Review of Reviews in 1918, it was later distributed as a pamphlet. The pamphlet was endorsed by doctors, churches and social organizations, but its forthright description of human sexuality was not wholly well-received. The pamphlet was deemed obscene by the Post Office in 1922 and in 1928, Dennett was tried by a federal grand jury and found guilty of distributing obscene materials through the mail. A Mary Ware Dennett Defense Committee was organized under the American Civil Liberties Union and the conviction was overturned in 1930.

Our collection was created by the well-regarded medical illustrator Dr. Robert Latou Dickinson, fellow of The New York Academy of Medicine, friend to Mary Ware Dennett and member of the defense committee. Dr. Dickinson was also responsible for the diagrams shown in the pamphlet. Materials include copies of The Sex Side of Life, correspondence, clippings, printed matter, typed and manuscript notes and the Appellant’s Brief from the U.S. vs. Mary Ware Dennett case. To learn more or visit the collection, please contact the staff of the Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room by emailing history@nyam.org.

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About nyamhistory

The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, which includes the Library, promotes the scholarly and public understanding of the history of medicine and public health and the history of the book. Established in 2012, the Center aims to build bridges among an interdisciplinary community of scholars, educators, clinicians, curatorial and conservation professionals, and the general public. The Center’s Library is one of the largest medical collections in the United States open to the general public, to whom it has been available since 1878.

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