Weeks 40 and beyond: Stay curious

The OG push present, Brandy bowl, 1682. |  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The OG push present, Brandy bowl, 1682. | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The most important words in the English language may be "I don't know." Good researchers know that the list of things they don't know is always longer than the list of things they do know.

One thing you don’t know is how much longer this pregnancy is likely to last. Because it feels interminable, you were tempted to Google “longest recorded pregnancy,” which led you to the astonishing story of a woman whose pregnancy lasted just over one year.

Here’s the story as reported in a 1945 article in Time Magazine:

Dr. Daniel Beltz swore it was true. So did Mrs. Beulah Hunter, 25. And Baby Penny Diana did have a knowing look about her. But other doctors at Los Angeles’ Methodist Hospital found it incredible that Mrs. Hunter had been pregnant 375 days (instead of the normal 280) before her baby was born there last week.

According to the article, Hunter’s pregnancy was deemed the longest ever recorded, “topping the runner-up by about 58 days.”

The author, who in the article’s digitally-archived form is not listed, lays out Dr. Beltz’s evidence: a positive pregnancy test on March 24, 1944, and Hunter’s last menstrual period on February 10, 1944. Beltz claimed that, following that pregnancy test, Hunter’s fetus experienced “apparent cessation of growth.”

This pregnant pause was not believed by Hunter and Beltz’s skeptics, who pointed to baby Diana’s birth weight of 6 pounds, 15 ounces. The four-paragraph article ends with Beltz’s dismissal of alternative explanations: “To suggestions that Mrs. Hunter may have had a miscarriage and second pregnancy, he replied: ‘Quite impossible.’”

Hunter’s record-setting pregnancy made for good news at the time. “Never in medical history has a birth been so tardy,” claimed the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “One of the most unusual cases in medical annals,” said Vestkusten, San Francisco’s Swedish newspaper.

The San Bernardino Sun, noting other doctors’ skepticism about the case, quoted Dr. B. J. Hanley of the University of Southern California’s School of Medicine: “while it doesn’t make sense to me there always has to be a first time for everything.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette included a verbal shrug from Beltz: “It will take a higher power than myself to explain this.”

Perth’s Mirror hinted at a less divine explanation. Reporters compared the Hunters’ story to that of a English soldier who came home to a new baby 331 days after the last day of his most recent leave. The soldier sued for divorce, but the judge denied it because while long pregnancies are abnormal, they are not impossible.

Hunter’s record-breaking pregnancy wasn’t confined to the papers of her day. It tops many lists of strange and amazing pregnancy facts, on parenting sites like Mom.me and Babygaga, where the 375-day record goes completely unquestioned.

When you read these stories like these, stay curious. What alternative explanations are there for the date of Hunter’s delivery? It’s possible that Hunter miscarried her first pregnancy, but did not realize that loss before becoming pregnant again. It’s possible Hunter did know of a miscarriage, but had other motivations for not revealing she was newly pregnant. It’s possible that Beltz was Hunter’s ally in keeping a second pregnancy secret. It’s also possible that Beltz charged ahead with an amazing medical discovery without looking too closely at the details.

Who was Dr. Beltz, and why did he make this extraordinary pregnancy claim? Given that he identified himself as a medical researcher, you would expect that he would have published such a finding in a medical journal, but he either did not seek to publish or his findings were not accepted.

We can’t know any of the details of this supposedly extra-long pregnancy with certainty, nor should we be particularly interested in doing so. If there was a good reason for Hunter or Beltz to hide details of the pregnancy then, there may have been harm in challenging those details then and no great benefit to digging them up now.

What lessons should we take from this story?

Sometimes we can’t know the answers. It’s impossible for us to know the full details of this story, as many of the original participants died years ago. Their story likely died with them.

Sometimes we don’t need to know the answers. We could, of course, hunt down every person who ever knew Beltz or Hunter to see what they heard about this pregnancy and birth. But we don’t need to get to the truth of the claim. We don’t need to ruin any lives or memories because the length of that pregnancy, short or long as it was, won’t have a meaningful impact on our lives. It’s okay for us not to know.

Oftentimes, there are more interesting questions to ask. Whether or not we can get to the truth of this pregnancy, you can focus on the social conditions that would make such a long pregnancy newsworthy. What’s at stake for a woman, either in 1945 or 2018, whose pregnancy is found to be shorter than reported? How are pregnancy and child birth framed as moral issues as often as they are medical ones?

Very soon, you or your pregnant partner will give birth to your newest family member. I hope, that through reading this calendar, you’ve birthed something else too: a more intellectually curious version of yourself.