Midwives and midwifery

Midwifery was traditionally a female occupation. The conventional history of midwifery presents a story of women midwives, skilled, well respected, economically successful and employed by all classes in the population whose monopoly of the occupation was shaken when male physicians and surgeons became interested in the work.

'Men midwives' gained increasing influence from the seventeenth century. The nineteenth century is usually considered to have seen the virtual take over of birth by 'men midwives' or obstetricians in Britain. 

Midwives Acts of 1902

The Midwives Acts of 1902 which laid down the requirements for Midwife education and registration is sometimes seen as demonstrating the achievement of professional status for midwives. Others have suggested that it finally marks the loss of autonomy and the regulation of midwifery by others. This bland account conceals many interesting variations and complications.

A number of general texts give insight:

  • Midwives and medical men: a history of inter-professional rivalries and women's rights
    Donnison, J
    London: Heinemann Educational 1977
  • Women, health and reproduction
    Roberts, H (ed.)
    London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981
  • The making of man-midwifery, childbirth in England 1660-1770
    Wilson, A
    London: UCL Press, 1995

Royal College of Midwives
There is a standard history of the Royal College of Midwives. Like all commissioned histories, one of the objectives of this is to justify and explain the actions of the College.

  • Behind the blue door: history of the Royal College of Midwives 1881-1981
    Cowell, B and Wainwright, D
    London: Bailliere Tindall, 1981

Nurses Registration Act
In an account of the nurses registration act, Rosemary White discussed some of the issues of the Midwives Act:

  • Some political influences surrounding the Nurse's Registration Act 1919
    White, R
    Journal of Advanced Nursing 1 (1976): 209-217.

Midwifery in Scotland

In the face of much change traditional practices persisted. Some Scottish customs have been documented:

  • Part one: childbirth and infancy
    In: Scottish Customs from the cradle to the grave
    Bennett, M
    Edinburgh: Polygon, 1992
  • Folk tradition and folk medicine in Scotland: the writings of David Rorie
    Buchan, D (Ed.)
    Edinburgh: Canongate Academic, 1994

Quality of the work of midwives

The quality of the work of midwives is difficult to determine. Medical journals published horrific accounts of the work of incompetent midwives, but they had a vested interest in enhancing the reputation of doctors and diminishing that of midwives. The voice of the midwives themselves is difficult to find. Some historians have attempted to defend them.

The good qualities of eighteen and nineteenth century midwives working in London have been demonstrated by an analysis of the returns from the Royal Maternity Charity:

  • The Royal Maternity Charity: the first hundred years
    Seligman, S A
    Medical History 24 (1980): 403-418

In Scotland, 'schools' for training midwives existed in centres such as Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen from at least the mid eighteenth century. It seems to have been accepted, in some parishes in Scotland that midwives should be educated or trained and that they were expected to go away to do this. A short story by John Galt tells of the actions in one parish:

  • The Howdie
    In: John Galt Selected Short Stories, 73-95
    Gordon, I A (Ed.)
    Galt, J
    Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1978. [First published 1833.]

Complications of childbirth

The complications of childbirth could be tragic. In particular the ravages of puerperal fever have attracted attention. An excellent account of these issues is to be found in the work of Irvine Loudon:

  • Death in childbirth: an international study of maternity care and maternal mortality 1800-1950
    Loudon, I
    London: Clarendon Press, 1993
  • On maternal and infant mortality 1900-1960
    Loudon, I
    Social History of Medicine 4 (1991): 29-73

Women in childbirth

The experience of women in childbirth and their attitudes to their midwife are presented in a number of texts. A good example of oral history looking at the early twentieth century is:

  • The midwife's tale: an oral history from handywoman to professional midwife
    Leap, N and Hunter, B
    London: Scarlet Press, 1993

The experience of eighteenth century aristocratic mothers is explored in:

  • In the family way: Childbearing in the British aristocracy 1760-1860
    Lewis, J S
    New Jersey: Rutger's University Press, 1986

The co-operative movement gave some women a voice. Accounts of the experience of childbirth can be found in:

  • Maternity: letters from working women
    Llewelyn Davies, M (Ed.)
    London: Virago 1978

Science of childbirth

The 'advances' in the science of childbirth led to the founding of maternity hospitals. Here skills of midwifery were passed on by using the labours of poor women to teach medical students and midwives. The effect of this change on women has been discussed in:

  • Midwives, medical men and poor women labouring of child: lying in hospitals
    In: Women, health and reproduction. Roberts, H (Ed.) 
    Versluysen, M
    London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981

Experience of an untrained midwife

A rare account of the experience of an untrained midwife at the time of the Midwives Act in 1902 is to be found in the first personal account in:

  • Life as we have known it by co-operative working women
    Llewelyn Davies, M (Ed.) 
    London: Virago, 1977. [First published 1931.]

Community midwives

The work of community midwives is considered in:

  • Midwifery in England and Wales before 1936: handywomen and doctors
    Fox, E 
    International History of Nursing Journal 1 (1995): 17-28

Wet nurses

Infant feeding could be a problem if the natural mother was unable to feed her infant. Satisfactory artificial feeding was not introduced until the second half of the nineteenth century. Wet nurses were used extensively. The British tradition differed somewhat from the systems used in continental Europe:

  • Wet nursing: a history from antiquity to the present
    Fildes, V
    Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988
  • Breasts bottles and babies
    Fildes, V
    Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1986

British and European midwifery

Two important collections of essays in the history of British and European midwifery have been published by Hilary Marland. These essays set a high standard of scholarship.

  • The art of midwifery, early modern midwives in Europe
    Marland, H
    London: Routledge, 1993
  • Midwives, society and childbirth: debates and controversies in the modern period
    Marland, H and Rafferty, A M (Eds.)
    London: Routledge, 1997

Martha Ballard

You might like to look at the website which examines the life of Martha Ballard, a midwife in eighteenth century Massachusetts USA:

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