By Carol (Ashby) Brees
From the Fort Dodge Messenger, July 2006 Issue
Appeared in the Lucas County Genealogical Society Newsletter January 2010
Medical practices and related social customs have changed radically in 100 years. Diaries and journals of the 19th century bear witness to the fact that 'pregnancy' was neither mentioned nor publicly discussed. In such written records, pregnant women of that time referred to morning sickness and other related discomfort as being 'ill'. If modern readers aren't aware of this while reading a daily diary from the nineteenth century or before, they're amazed to suddenly come upon an entry such as, 'Thomas was born at midnight, a healthy baby boy.' Society forbade direct references of a woman's impending birth, and women were even reticent about referring to their pregnancies in their personal diaries and journals. In that era, a commonly-used synonym for 'pregnancy' was 'illness' and when applied to a married woman in childbearing years, was perfectly understood. Though pregnancy wasn't a socially acceptable topic of discussion in 1850, being 'in a family way' was a phrase disrespectfully whispered and never around children. I recall my own grandmother referring to a woman's pregnancy as 'being in the family way,' - she was born in 1897.
It has always been natural for experienced women - midwives - to aid and comfort women giving birth, learning their craft by apprenticeship. Midwives had various names: baby catchers, lay midwives, granny midwives, zieckentroosters in the New Amsterdam colony, but the actual translation of 'midwife' means 'with woman' and 'wise woman.' Two of the first known midwives appear in the Old Testament. Shiphrah and Puah, who practiced their art around 1520 BC. In early New England towns midwives were valued members of society, often provided rent-free housing to tend home births. Some of the early midwives history remembers are Martha Ballard of Hallowell, ME, who kept a midwife diary from 1785-1812, Ruth Barnaby, Boston's Rebecca Fuller, who practiced from 1630-1663 and Elizabeth Phillips who delivered 3,000 newborns from 1719-1749. These midwives performed their merciful duties by sled, canoe and horse back, armed with vast experience, their 'midwife' book for difficult deliveries and their herbal brews and potions. These women grew and gathered their own herbs (early pharmaceuticals) and with great skill and effectiveness administered them on their maternal patients to aid in natural childbirth. Child bed fever (postpartum infection) and puerperal infection (maternal morbidity) were two common causes of death of women during childbirth. Some of the better known remedies midwives used were slippery elm bark (to speed delivery), raspberry tea (to relax muscles and improve the efficiency of labor), blackberry tea (for use during and immediately following birth to prevent hemorrhaging). 20th century studies reflect the fact that the mortality rate using midwives in the 17th century shows no higher maternal or infant deaths than modern births by physicians in hospitals!
The period before 1750 is considered the 'age of midwifery.' 'Male midwives' were used by some of the wealthier women from that time until about 1790. As previously discussed, women weren't permitted to train as doctors and male doctors of the time were poorly trained, having been required to attend only several weeks of lectures given by other poorly trained doctors. Nor did they learn through actual observation of childbirth. What doctors - as professionals - did bring to childbirth was chloroform, which could ease the pain of childbirth and instruments, such as forceps. Doctors were quick to realize the profit to be made in the field of obstetrics, and the medical profession began insisting that childbirth was a 'medical' issue requiring their services and - for their convenience - a hospital setting. The debate was on. Midwives resisted the bad press given them by the medical community and were averse to the higher fees doctors charged. The 'midwife problem' controversy raged in the late 19th century, resulting in licensing, training, and regulations, one of which required midwives to register births. By 1900, midwives were still attending 50% of America's births. By 1935, midwives attended 35% of all births. Today midwives are nurse midwives - registered nurses certified as midwives who practice in hospital settings or birthing centers. America's 5,000 nurse-midwives assist in approximately 8% of all births.
The art of midwifery has withstood a storm of controversy over the centuries, which began before immigrants came to America. Many of the millions of women who were put to death during the Middle Ages were midwives and healers. They were feared by the ignorant masses that viewed their mysterious art of bringing life forth, as a supernatural power, an alliance with the devil. The stigma 'witch' never completly died out and the Salem witch hunts of the late 1600's targeted midwives, some of whom were condemned and hung.
The history of midwives predates written history - women have always assisted their 'sisters' in bringing life into the world. Baby catchers around the world have often been greatly revered members of society and sometimes feared. Not many generations ago, midwives were the ONLY 'doctors' assisting in births. Though you may never have given it thought, you may find it interesting to realize your ancestors born before 1790 were certainly brought into this world aided by an experienced midwife who's wisdom came from generations of the midwifery art.
We family historians who seek vital records to complete family charts are familiar with the problem of locating birth records in those years prior to mandatory birth registration. We must rely upon alternate records to obtain these: Bible records, parish records, old town records, tombstones and obituaries. Midwives in this country's history helped bring forth centuries of American babies and hold an important place in our countries past.