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Telegony (pregnancy)

Telegony is a theory in heredity, now discredited but widely believed until the late 19th century, holding that offspring can inherit the characteristics of a previous mate of the female parent; thus the child of a widowed or remarried woman might partake of traits of a previous husband. This was part of the resistance to the marriage in 1361 of Edward the Black Prince, heir to the throne of Edward III of England, with Joan, the "Fair Maid of Kent", who had been previously married: their progeny, it was thought, might not be completely of his Plantagenet blood. The theory, expounded as natural history by Aristotle, was accepted throughout Antiquity and revived with the rediscovery of Aristotle in the Middle Ages. Both Schopenhauer and Herbert Spencer found telegony to be a creditable theory;[1] it was only conclusively proved wrong with modern understanding of genetics. The concept of telegonic impregnation was expressed in Greek mythology in the origins of Greek heroes. Such double fatherhood, one father immortal, one mortal, was a familiar feature of Greek heroes like Theseus, who had a human and a divine father, doubly conceived in the same night. By the understanding of sex in antiquity, the mix of semen gave Theseus a combination of divine as well as mortal characteristics; this explained the hero's more-than-human nature. Sometimes in Greek myth the result could be twins, one born divine of a divine father, the other human of a human sire: see Dioscuri. Of a supposed Parnassos, founder of Delphi, Pausanias[2] observes, "Like the other heroes, as they are called, he had two fathers; one they say was the god Poseidon, the human father being Cleopompus."

In the nineteenth century, the most widely credited example was that of Lord Morton’s mare, reported by the distinguished surgeon Sir Everard Home, and cited by Charles Darwin.[3] Lord Morton bred a white mare with a wild quagga stallion,[4] and when he later bred the same mare with a white stallion, the offspring strangely had stripes in the legs, like the quagga.

Although August Weismann had expressed doubts about the theory earlier, it did not fall out of scientific favor until the 1890s, when a series of experiments by James Cossar Ewart in Scotland and other researchers in Germany and Brazil failed to find any evidence of the phenomenon. The result obtained by Morton could probably be caused by the display in the offspring of the recessive genes inherited by the Morton's mare from her parents or grandparents.

In mammals, each sperm has the haploid set of chromosomes and each egg has another haploid set. During the process of fertilization a zygote with the diploid set is produced. This set will be inherited by every somatic cell of a mammal, with exactly half the genetic material coming from the producer of the sperm (the father) and another half from the producer of the egg (the mother, obviously). Thus, the myth of telegony is fundamentally incompatible with our knowledge of genetics and the reproductive process.

Nevertheless, telegony influenced late nineteenth-century racialist discourse: a woman who had once had a child with a non-Aryan man, it was argued, could never have a "pure" Aryan child again. This idea was adopted by the Nazis.[5]


  1. ^ Jan Bondeson, A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, 1999:159.
  2. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece x.6.1.
  3. ^ Darwin, Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868).
  4. ^ The quagga was a relative of the zebra, now extinct.
  5. ^ Bondeson loc. cit.


  • "Telegony". The Encyclopedia Americana 26. (1920). p. 327. 
  • "Telegony"
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Telegony_(pregnancy)". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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