12 Facts About The History Of Midwifery That Really Deliver



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Vote up the most surprising facts about midwives.

Births can have a religious significance, influence contemporary and future events, and lead to demographic ramifications. Birthing practices have varied greatly throughout history, from bizarre royal birthing practices to mysterious silent Scientology births. The personnel associated with the events have also changed through time. Family members, doctors, and nurses may provide support and aid before, during, and after birth. Another closely associated group is midwives.

Midwifery has a complicated - and fascinating - past. Praised at times, persecuted at others, and still stigmatized in some forums, it's full of unexpected tidbits. Take a look and see for yourself.

Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

  • 1
    473 VOTES

    During WWII, Women Risked Their Lives To Be Midwives

    In Britain during the early 20th century, midwives attended to the majority of births among working-class women. They also became tied to the pronatalism movement on the home front with the outbreak of WWII. The National Health Service put out calls for women to become midwives as hospital vacancies rose. Declining birth rates also drove the narrative of the duty to have babies, a notion a midwife named Nora described as:

    Only because they want men to fight in the next war. The more babies people have, the more they’ll have to fight for them in the next war. I think it’s horrible. They don’t want the babies for their own sakes at all, just for wars.

    Midwives in Britain risked their lives during the Blitz, delivering babies in air raid shelters. In the wake of those dangers, the women were often without basic protections like helmets

    Promoting childbirth was also part of the rhetoric and messaging of the Nazi party in Germany. Nanna Conti served as chairwoman of the midwives' organization in Germany at the time and, in 1938, pushed forward legislation that required a midwife to be present at every birth within the Reich. 

    In locations like Australia and New Zealand, midwives began to deliver babies in hospitals, due to the need for doctors and nurses on battlefields. After WWII ended, many midwives in these areas were inclined to stay in hospital settings. This contributed to the growth of nurse-midwifery in Britain, as did the post-WWII baby boom. 

    One notable wartime midwife was Stanisława Leszczyńska of Poland, who delivered some 3,000 babies and defied orders to kill newborns. She reportedly stood up to Josef Mengele at one point and devised a technique to mark children taken from their mothers in the hopes of reuniting mother and child in the future.

    473 votes
  • 2
    170 VOTES

    The Catholic Church Put Regulations About Midwifery Into Place Due To Fear For Newborn Souls

    Midwives could not attend universities, were excluded from incorporation, and were generally considered below the status of physicians and professionally trained practitioners. Even so, they remained essential to assisting women in childbirth. As a result, authorities found ways to try to control their ranks.

    Midwives were required to report illegitimate births, but were not “to baptize except when compelled by extreme necessity.” In 1310, the Council of Cologne detailed how the latter could happen:

    If the mother dies during childbirth and if the infant presents its head outside the womb of the mother, the midwife must throw water on the infant's head and say: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, etc.” The infant is thus baptized… If the infant does not present its head or other body part and it is not possible altogether to distinguish its sex, the midwife says: “Creature of God, I baptize you,” etc.

    This was only allowed, however, to prevent the infant soul from being condemned to purgatory. Midwives in parts of France and England were supposed to be trained in how to conduct proper baptisms to prevent what was called the loss of “a chylde both soule and lyfe.” This not only saved the soul of an infant but also prevented the midwife from possibly using witchcraft against the child.

    Because midwives were often associated with sorcery and immorality, religious authorities began to issue them licenses by the 16th century. Church and municipal regulations took precedence and prominence in different regions of Europe and the emerging colonial world, while midwives became part of bureaucracies but still didn't receive official sanctions.

    170 votes
  • Midwives Assessed Newborns For Deformities - And It Could Be A Death Sentence
    Photo: British Library / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    267 VOTES

    Midwives Assessed Newborns For Deformities - And It Could Be A Death Sentence

    Midwives are known to have provided information about and aided in abortions throughout history, a testament to the comprehensive care they provided. This practice influenced superstitious views of midwives, but also demonstrates the power they had over matters of life and death. 

    Because midwives were often the first people to see a newborn, they inspected the infant for any injuries or deformities. While infanticide was not sanctioned, there are cases of mothers and midwives conspiring to kill deformed children in 16th-century England and Italy. Cases of women accused of infanticide also appear in records from the Netherlands, Scotland, and in various colonies through the mid-20th century. 

    In the case of an infant born with deformities, midwives could be accused of causing the malady. When Anna Maria Pierlerin was accused of killing Zachariah Zimmerman's child during birth in 1645, she was only cleared of the accusation after doctors assessed the baby's body and determined the deformities occurred in utero.  

    267 votes
  • 4
    242 VOTES

    There's Evidence Of Birthing Chairs From The Ancient World - But Forceps Weren't Invented Until The 1500s

    Equipment, tools, and instruments used in childbirth range from hand-held devices for extracting newborns to pillows and seats to make the mother more comfortable. Birthing chairs and stills - intended to facilitate labor and delivery - were used as far back as 2000 BCE and can be seen in artwork from roughly 1450 BCE.  

    Birth rooms (or houses), called mammisi, were facilities where women gave birth and spent the weeks following taking part in purification rituals. Reliefs on walls of one birth house in Luxor, Egypt, show a woman giving birth on a stool. It's believed she was Queen Mutemwia, mother of Amenhotep III. Similar furniture is seen in Roman reliefs dating to c. 200 CE

    Additional items midwives used in antiquity included bandages, pillows, water, and sponges. Medical instruments like specula were rare; they were used to diagnose and treat ailments and had no role in the birthing process. The type of forceps that became standard in childbirth was not invented until the late 1500s by a French barber-surgeon named Peter Chamberlen, a unique figure in that he was one of the few male midwives. 

    He called himself an accoucheur, however, because, according to historian and physician Irvine Loudon, “The term man-midwife had derogatory overtones… which explains why the elite man-midwives - in modern terms, the obstetricians - preferred the fancy French term accoucheur.”

    Chamberlen designed his forceps explicitly to extract an infant out of the birth canal, especially during difficult deliveries. He initially kept his invention a secret, as did his sons who followed in his footsteps, but by the mid-1700s, the general design was known in the child-birthing community. At first, female midwives weren't trusted to use them but, as similar devices came onto the scene, forceps were gradually used by midwives and obstetricians alike. 

    One more device invented to aid in childbirth was the chainsaw. Originally hand-cranked and developed to perform symphysiotomies (cutting the cartilage between the pelvic bones to widen the pelvis), chainsaws were first crafted by Scottish physicians John Aitken and James Jeffray in 1780.

    242 votes
  • 5
    136 VOTES

    Midwifery Was Documented As A Profession As Early As c. 1900 BCE

    In prehistoric societies, the activities of midwives were taken on by women with experience in the birthing process. Mothers and older female relatives would assist their younger counterparts as they gave birth. This was a factor in the increased population growth during the Neolithic Period, as research from anthropologist Sofija Stefanovic indicated “the average Neolithic woman bore between 8 and 10 children.”

    These same women may have been viewed as prophetic figures. Biblical women like Rachel, who was assured by a midwife that she would give birth to a son, demonstrate how creation and birth were linked biologically and spiritually.  

    The earliest written documentation of a midwife comes from an Egyptian text dating to roughly 1900 BCE. The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus contains information about diseases, fertility, and other matters related to the health of women. The Ebers Papyrus, dated to roughly 1550 BCE, similarly includes medical content, including folk remedies and incantations to ward off demons. The documents indicate midwives were revered and, barring unexpected complications, diagnosed pregnancy, delivered babies, and offered guidance about nursing.

    136 votes
  • Midwives Were Condemned As Witches - Especially When Unsuccessful Deliveries Occurred
    Photo: Johann Jakob Wick / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    129 VOTES

    Midwives Were Condemned As Witches - Especially When Unsuccessful Deliveries Occurred

    Midwifery and healing have connections that extend to antiquity, while the link between women and witchcraft reached its apex during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. Because most midwives were women, and healing often had a sense of magic associated with it, the relationships among all of these coalesced with time.

    Accusations of witchcraft against midwives during the Middle Ages often overlapped with claims of heresy as the Catholic Church tried to identify and eliminate nonbelievers. Midwives were necessarily associated with newborns and their souls. When an infant died in childbirth, the suspicion that the midwife had something to do with it accompanied the overall belief that women were intellectually inept and susceptible to demonic temptations.

    The fear of sorcery and demons that coincided with midwifery can be seen in works like Malleus Maleficarum, a legal and theological treatise on witchcraft written in 1486 CE. It stated that witches who were midwives were guilty of preventing pregnancies, bringing about abortions, and causing miscarriages. According to the tome, they also supposedly killed newborns to “drink its blood and devour it” or “they take them out of the room and, raising them up in the air, offer them to devils.” In one statement, Malleus Maleficarum proclaimed:

    No one does more harm to the Catholic Faith than midwives.

    Persecution of witches in Western Europe during the later Middle Ages informed future events like the witchcraft trials in 17th-century Europe and North America. 

    Walpurga Haussmannin, a once-licensed midwife in Germany, confessed to killing 43 infants (as well as to fornication with the devil and other wrongs, all under torture) and was burnt at the stake in 1587. In 1649, Margaret Jones was the first woman executed for being a witch in the Massachusetts Bay Colony after the women in her care got worse instead of better. In some sources, Jones is said to have been a midwife, while she's also been identified as a “doctress.” And one Parisian midwife named “la dame Charonne" was executed in 1660 for killing a woman through an abortion that went awry.

    Not everyone agrees that midwives were contemned as witches - at least not on a large scale. The extent to which they were persecuted has been overstated, according to scholar David Harley, who argued in 1990:

    A few spectacular cases have been mistaken for a general pattern and midwife-witches have been seen where none exist. The history of witchcraft has been distorted… [but] completely unbalanced by this modern stereotype. 

    129 votes