Historical Professions: Midwives – Sources of Research for your Historical Novel
The World Health Organization has named 2020 as the “Year of the Nurse and Midwife.” Here are selected websites that offer free resources on the history of midwifery as a profession that you can consult for your novel.
This blog post on the National Museum of American History’s website from 2015 is about the Frontier Nursing Service, which sent nurse-midwives to rural areas of Appalachia beginning in 1925. This very interesting post has a link to a silent film on the service, and photos of midwives’ equipment. The guest blogger, Dr. Laura Ettinger, a professor of history, describes how photographs of babies in saddlebags and of nurses on horseback helped public support for the service grow.
The organization’s beginnings go back to 1881, and it is the UK’s professional organization for midwives. This blog page has many interesting posts, such as Christmas-related items in the RCM’s collection, information about a man-midwife practicing in the first half of the 19th century, a midwifery certificate dated 1779, and oral histories from retired midwives. This would be an excellent page to delve into to find story ideas if your character is a British midwife in the 19th or 20th centuries.
This is a digitized book from 1948 by the Mississippi Board of Health, and appears to be intended to help educate African American midwives in the state. Chapters cover the equipment needed in the delivery room, the instructions the midwife should give to an expectant mother, recommended diet for pregnant women, care of the mother and baby, and reporting the birth to officials. The final pages include songs and a prayer for midwives. If you are writing a mid-century novel set in the rural south, the information in this book could help you describe childbirth scenes.
The above is only one of the many digitized historical documents available from the National Library of Medicine. If you go to the NLM’s digitized collections page, and search on “midwives,” you will bring up over 1600 documents. If you click on the left on “formats,” and then “text,” that will give you a list of print documents about midwifery. You can click on “dates by range,” and then select the century your novel is set in, to see primary source material from your era of interest. A vast treasure house on the subject! Not all of the publications are American, some were published in London. The site even has a filter that will tell you which items are in the public domain and which may be subject to copyright.
Midwifery Today began as a magazine in 1986. Its website offers this extensive timeline of the history of midwifery in America, along with historical context. It’s a “.com” site, but I think the timeline will be useful to historical novelists.
Nurse academics from Bournemouth University began the project to record oral histories of retired nurses. This particular page of the website has 5 clickable documents, part of a History of Midwifery in the Western World, by B. Gail Thomas, and includes sections on the UK, the US, and pre-20th century midwifery. There are also several audio clips of oral histories.
This is a freely-available article by John F. O’Sullivan about the history of the profession in Ireland.
This is an article in an online encyclopedia offered by the Jewish Women’s Archive, a group devoted to documenting Jewish women’s stories. The article is not long, but covers the treatment of midwives in Old Testament scripture.
An article by Jenne Erigero Alderks in the magazine Sunstone, published by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). Alderks discusses the role of midwives in Mormon history. If your historical novel has Mormon characters, this article may be valuable for your research. It includes a lengthy bibliography.
This article by Professor Ancella R. Bickley was published in the journal West Virginia History in 1990. If your novel is set in early 20th century West Virginia, the article could provide some good story ideas, such as herbal remedies, the social ostracism that could result if one had a male birth attendant, and midwives being paid with dress material or a piece of meat, rather than cash. Bickley provides an extensive bibliography.
A blog post by a practicing, independent midwife in New Zealand. It provides a survey of Roman midwifery, and she gives a bibliography of her sources, which should be useful for novelists looking for more information on the topic in ancient history.
The article covers the decline of midwifery and the rise of medicine in Australia, especially between 1886-1928. If your Australian character is a midwife in this era, the information here could provide a good driver for your plot: the midwife struggling to fight the perception that midwives were uneducated and risked giving the mother sepsis, while a doctor was supposed to be better.
Here’s a selection of books on the history of midwifery. If your local library does not own copies, they may be able to get them for you via interlibrary loan.
MIDWIVES, SOCIETY, AND CHILDBIRTH: DEBATES AND CONTROVERSIES IN THE MODERN PERIOD
(edited by Hilary Marland and Anne Marie Rafferty. London: Routledge, 1997.)
The book “seeks to explore debates concerning the role of midwives from the nineteenth century through to the present day”–Introduction. Chapters cover conditions in Spain, Sweden, Denmark, the U.K., and other European countries. Chapters conclude with notes and bibliographies which would be useful for further research.
A HISTORY OF MIDWIFERY IN THE UNITED STATES: THE MIDWIFE SAID FEAR NOT
(by Helen Varney and Joyce Beebe Thompson. New York: Springer, 2016.)
The authors are emeriti professors of nursing. The first four chapters cover midwives in America from the 1600s-1940s, and then later chapters on topics such as education also contain historical material. Chapters end with lengthy bibliographical notes, useful for further research. Some black and white photos are included.
BIRTH CHAIRS, MIDWIVES, AND MEDICINE
(By Amanda Carson Banks. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1999.)
“The birth chair is particularly suited for a material reading of the story of birth…It is not the birth chair alone that interests me, but rather what the birth chair, as an artifact, can tell us about actual practices and how these changed and developed.”—Introduction. The illustrations really enlightened me: I never knew there were so many different kinds of birthing chairs. There’s a list at the end of the book of museums that have birth chairs in their collections.
CATCHING BABIES: THE PROFESSIONALIZATION OF CHILDBIRTH, 1870-1920
(By Charlotte G. Borst. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.)
“I offer a critique of the model of professionalization used by historians and sociologists by analyzing the work of a group of midwives and physicians who practiced in four Wisconsin counties between 1870 and 1920.”—Introduction. Chapters cover midwives’ training, midwives as entrepreneurs, and how midwives functioned in rural areas. Seventy-three pages of bibliographical notes provide material for further research.
NURSE-MIDWIFERY: THE BIRTH OF A NEW AMERICAN PROFESSION
(By Laura E. Ettinger. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006.)
“By exploring the birth of nurse-midwifery, my book analyzes the ways in which women professionals created a space of their own in the face of many obstacles.” The chapter on Mary Breckinridge and the Frontier Nursing Service may be of the most use to historical novelists.
(Edited by Ivy Lynn Bougreault, Cecelia Benoit and Robbie Davis-Floyd. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004.)
“This book tells the story of the midwifery renaissance that began in Canada during the 1970s and continues today.”—Foreword. Chapter one may be most useful to writers setting a novel in early Canada, as it has the most historical content, with a useful bibliography.
THE MIDWIVES BOOK: OR, THE WHOLE ARE OF MIDWIFRY DISCOVERED
(By Jane Sharp, edited by Elaine Hobby. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.)
This is a reprint of a book published in London by Simon Miller in 1671. If your novel is set in the 17th century, this book would be really valuable as a source of sexual/reproductive knowledge of the period. Topics such as the appearance and functions of the genitals, what is necessary for conception, delivering the afterbirth, childbed fever, and care of the nursing mother are included. An introduction gives context to the book’s publication, there’s a note on the then-current theory of humors in medicine, and a medical glossary.
JAPANESE AMERICAN MIDWIVES: CULTURE, COMMUNITY, AND HEALTH POLITICS, 1880-1950
(By Susan L. Smith. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.)
“This project explores the experiences of Japanese immigrant midwives and the shifting meanings of midwifery from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century”—Introduction. Many of the midwives learned their trade in Japan and then practiced in the United States after immigrating. One of them kept a diary for over 50 years, which is one of Smith’s sources for the book. Smith examines the midwives’ experiences with politics, gender, and race relations. “My study demonstrates that Japanese immigrant midwives took great pride in their work and people held them in high regard.”—Introduction. If your novel is set in an immigrant community, this should provide valuable insight into conditions at the time. Extensive bibliographical notes will lead to many other resources.
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.