Monday, February 28, 2011

Women of Authority: Midwife Series Part 2/4

            
              This Monday, we're continuing with Laurie Alice Eakes four part mid-wife series.

Childbirth was more than a duty to God and husband.  Childbirth was a time when the woman was guaranteed attention in an atmosphere of “supreme drama”. Because, except in extreme cases, men were excluded from the birthing chamber, the laboring woman held the leading role with her friends, relatives, and neighbors as supporting actresses and, directing them all, was the midwife.


Well into the early modern era in Europe and throughout the American colonial period, women in religious orders and mistresses of the local manor performed the office of midwife as charitable work, but in the towns and villages, other women made a living presiding over childbirth.  More than likely many of these women were unskilled practitioners, relying mainly on personal experience with childbirth or observation of other women’s labor; however, from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, when “man midwives”-physicians in obstetrical practice-became the reigning practitioners in the birthing chamber or hospital, midwives could and did consider themselves professionals.

            Unlike other members of their gender, midwives received wages and, through necessity, more often than not, worked outside the home.  Yet, unlike actresses, prostitutes, and domestic servants, midwives were respected, revered, and sometimes even feared members of society, giving them a power few of their peers realized.


            In comparison with obituaries of good women at the same period, the death notices of midwives laud them as not merely exemplary human beings, but extol the virtues of their work and their benefit to their communities.  Mary Bradway of Pennsylvania and Lydia Robinson of Virginia were, according to their obituaries, exceptional women and midwives:
“Yesterday was interred here the Body of Mary Bradway, formerly a noted Midwife.  She was born on New-Years Day, 1629-30, and died on the second of January 1729-30; aged just One Hundred years and a day.  Her Constitution wore well to the last, and she could see to read without Spectacles a few Months since.”

“Last Sunday died here Mrs. Lydia Robinson, aged 70 years, who during her practice as midwife for 35 years past, delivered a number of women, in this and the neighboring towns, of Twelve Hundred children; and it is very remarkable that in the whole of her practice she never left one woman in the operation.  The death of a person so eminently useful is a very great loss to the public in general, and to this town in particular.”

            Martha Ballard, made famous through Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s work with her diary, received only a one-line obituary.  Ulrich, however, quotes the eulogy of Jared Eliot, a Connecticut minister, delivered in 1739 on behalf of another midwife, Mrs. Elizabeth Smithson:

“The deceased was a true light upon a hill. She was a person of Humility, Affability, Compassion, and on whose Tongue was the Law of Kindness; Her Ear was open to the Complaints of the Afflicted, and her Hand was open for the Supply of the Needy.
As a Midwife, she was a person of Superior Skill and Capacity; as was found by Experience in the most difficult Cases ….

She regarded the Poor as well as the Rich ….

She denied herself both Sleep and rest, and spared neither Skill nor Pains for the Belief of those that were Afflicted and Distressed.

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Midwives historic role in society began to fascinate Laurie Alice Eakes in graduate
school. Before she was serious about writing fiction, she knew she wanted to write novels
with midwife heroines. Ten years, several published novels, four relocations, and a
National Readers Choice Award for Best Regency later, the midwives idea returned, and
Lady in the Mist was born. Now she writes full time from her home in Texas, where she
lives with her husband and sundry dogs and cats.

          Laurie Alice Eakes--Lady in the Mist from Revell Books, February, 2011. Read an Excerpt
at: http://www.lauriealiceeakes.com/

Monday, February 21, 2011

Qualities of a Good Midwife: Part 1/4

Laurie Alice Eakes is starting a four part Monday series on midwifery and I'm really looking forward to it. Today, she'll be focusing on the character of a good midwife. Comment contest is still in force. Whoever leaves the most comments this month wins a prize. Winner announced March 1.

The following section is redacted from the presentation I made at the 1999 New Perspectives in History Conference.  For facility of reading, I have changed the arcaic spelling into modern spelling.
“As concerning their persons, they must be neither too young nor too old, but of an indifferent age, between both; well composed, not being subject to diseases, nor deformed in any part of their body; comely and neat in their apparel; their hands small and fingers long, not thick, but clean, their nails pared very close; they ought to be very cheerful, pleasant, and of a good discourse; strong, not idle, but accustomed to exercise, that they may be the more able if need require.
Touching their deportment, they must be mild, gentle, courteous, sober chaste, and patient; not quarrelsome nor chollerick; neither must they be covetous, nor report anything whatsoever they hear or see in secret, in the person or house of whom they deliver…
As concerning their minds, they must be wise and discreet; able to flatter and speak many fair words, to no other end but only to deceive the apprehensive women, which is a commendable deceipte, and allowed, when it is done, for the good of the person in distress.”
Thus did William Sermon, a seventeenth century physician and clergyman, describe the attributes of a good midwife.  Compared with the attributes of a good woman, described in the numerous pamphlets, obituaries, and epitaphs of the same time period, a midwife in Early Modern England and the North American colonies was expected to embody the traits of a good woman as well as the characteristics of a good professional.  Though one cannot expect that midwives met the standards Sermon, his peers, and other midwives set down for childbirth practitioners, through the nature of their work, and the standards set down through the ecclesiastical and municipal laws, and the expectations of other women, midwives achieved goals superior to the ideals of mere virtuous women.  In an age when women possessed little to no authority outside the home, the midwife achieved a position of power over other women and  within society itself.
Would you make the cut?
***********************************************************************
Midwives historic role in society began to fascinate Laurie Alice Eakes in graduate
school. Before she was serious about writing fiction, she knew she wanted to write novels
with midwife heroines. Ten years, several published novels, four relocations, and a
National Readers Choice Award for Best Regency later, the midwives idea returned, and
Lady in the Mist was born. Now she writes full time from her home in Texas, where she
lives with her husband and sundry dogs and cats.

Laurie Alice Eakes--Lady in the Mist from Revell Books, February, 2011. Read an Excerpt
at:
http://www.lauriealiceeakes.com/

Monday, February 7, 2011

Oil of Sweet Vitriol: Ether and Chloroform

Don't forget the comment contest: whoever leaves the most comments this months wins a prize. I'll tally March 1.

Today we’re going historical and looking at the two first common general anesthetics that were used: Ether and Chloroform. This is a shout out to Anne Love who posed a question in the comments section a couple of months back: What anesthesia was used in 1893? Does ether or chloroform have an odor?
floating_ground/PhotoBucket
Ether was discovered in 1275. It was first synthesized by German physician Valerius Cordus in 1540. He named it “oil of sweet vitriol” which likely gives a clue to its odor. Other sources report ether’s odor as pungent, sweet, nauseating and fruity.
The first use of ether as an anesthetic occurred in 1842 by Dr. Crawford Williamson Long who used it to remove tumors from the neck of patient James Venable in Jefferson, Georgia. You may also see references that ether was used at the Ether Dome by William Thomas Green Morton who was a dentist that assisted surgeon John Collins Warren who also used it to remove a neck tumor. Now, it is largely recognized that Long should be credited with its first use.
Ether’s main drawback was its flammability. When the advent of using cauterizing tools came to fruition, you can see how setting fire to one’s patient during surgery would be considered poor form on the part of the doctor.
Chloroform was discovered in 1831 by James Young Simpson, a Scottish gynecologist and obstetrician, and was found efficacious in 1847. Chloroform was used widely until it was determined to be toxic to the kidney and liver but I did find a short note that perhaps chloroform was the preferred anesthetic in England. Chloroform is reported to have a “pleasant, non-irritating odor and slightly sweet taste”.
These agents, most likely ether in the US, were in use until the mid 1950’s when the non-flammable anesthetic agent halothane was discovered.
Do you have a historical medical scene using ether or chloroform?
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References:
Frontier Medicine by David Dary
Chloroform:
Ether: 
Halothane:
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