Angus McLaren has written books about the emergence of the serial killer, medical ethics, abortion, and the history of contraception and eugenics. But it is his most recent works — Sexual Blackmail: A Modern History (Harvard, 2002) and Impotence: A Cultural History (Chicago, 2007) — that led him to be profiled in this month’s issue of University Affairs, 50(3).
“I am always fascinated with the question, why? Why should that custom arise? What function did that form of sympathetic magic serve in society? Why was it believed?” And many times, the questions cannot be answered or understood by us in the modern day without the context of the societal relationships and power structures of the earlier time. “I am always saying the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”
It is this approach, and his prodigious publishing record, that led to his winning the prestigious $50,000 Canada Council/Molson Prize. But how did he do it?
Growing up in a blue-collar family in Vancouver — his father had sold shoes and worked in a laundry — Dr. McLaren was the first from either side of the family to attend university, entering the University of British Columbia in 1961. When he decided to continue on with postgraduate work in history, winning a scholarship to Harvard for both his master’s and PhD, his parents were mystified. “For them, it meant I hadn’t done well enough and I was being forced to take more training,” he says with a laugh, as he sits in his Vancouver West Point Grey home, not far from UBC.
At Harvard, Dr. McLaren says he made the mistake of picking something “doable” for his PhD topic, rather than something that truly interested him––he examined the French political press in the 1830s. “It hadn’t been done and probably shouldn’t have been done, at least not by me.”
The time was the late 1960s, and Dr. McLaren found himself much more interested in social movements, culture and the mentalities underlying a culture. A pivotal moment came in his final year at Harvard when he worked as an assistant for professor Theodore Zeldin, visiting from Oxford, who was giving various lectures on the notions of ambition, greed, love and family in 19th-century France. He remembers his excitement, thinking, “You can do this? This is history? You can talk about reproduction and women’s rights? I would love to do this sort of thing.”
The rest, as they say, is history.