The Historical Horror of Childbirth

Childbirth in much of human history has been a class act. The upper classes were encouraged to reproduce as much as possible, and a woman who was pregnant or recovering from childbirth took time to rest while servants took care of her and the child. The lower classes worked right up to and soon following birth, as they had to work to eat. The upper classes also had the latest medical knowledge at their fingertips, but this wasn't always such a good thing.

Photograph from The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Class distinctions in childbirth during the Renaissance were recorded. In 15th-century Florence, women were married as teenagers and often had five to ten children, depending on whether she survived childbirth. Childbirth was so dangerous that a woman would make out her will as soon as she found out she was pregnant. An age-old method of birth control is extended breastfeeding, which is nature's way of spacing out children. However, the custom among the upper classes was to farm out breastfeeding to wet nurses, which meant that the mother would soon be pregnant again.

It was during the Renaissance that medical doctors began to take part in childbirth, although not without a struggle. Women as whole were sheltered and their bodies hidden under plenty of clothing. It was unseemly for any man to take part in the intimate process of childbirth, and midwives did not want to give up their power or expertise in the area. Midwives had experience on their side; physicians had the authority that comes with the title. Therefore, most of the writings and advice from the period come from prominent physicians, and a lot of their advice was guesswork.  

Three women were pregnant when they boarded the Mayflower on its journey to America. One child, Oceanus Hopkins, was born during the voyage and died during the first winter in Massachusetts. Another, Peregrine White, was born shipboard off Cape Cod and lived to an old age. The third child was stillborn at Plymouth; the mother died in childbirth. Such stories were not at all shocking, as a woman's chances of dying during childbirth were between one and two percent -for each birth. If a woman gave birth to eight or ten children, her chances of eventually dying in childbirth were pretty high. The infant mortality rate was even higher. The chances of a child dying before his fifth birthday were estimated to be around 20 percent, depending on the community (accurate records are scarce). In addition to the fear of death or the fear of the child dying, there was no pain relief during labor, except for whisky in some places. In Puritan communities, pain during childbirth was God's punishment for Eve and all women who came afterward.

Motherhood in early America was even more frightening for slaves. Infant mortality among African and African-American slaves in the 18th century ranged from 28-50 percent, and mortality in children under ten was 40-50 percent, due to maternal malnutrition, overwork, disease, and lack of medical access. Slave owners blamed the mothers for infant deaths, and there is evidence that some babies were deliberately smothered to spare the child a life of slavery, but other factors contributed greatly to the infant death rate.

As Europe became more crowded in the 17th and 18th centuries, communicable diseases caused even more frequent deaths in childbirth. Puerperal fever had been around, but the rise of physician-assisted births increased its rate. It is a bacterial infection that became apparent within days of giving birth. The rise of maternity wards in hospitals meant that many women gave birth within shouting distance of each other. Doctors, in those days before germ theory, went from patient to patient, unknowingly carrying the bacteria on their instruments and their unwashed hands. In the 1790s, Alexander Gordon stressed that the disease was spread from one patient to another. He "bled" his patients at the first sign of puerperal fever, which actually helped in some cases, but no one understood why. In 1842, Thomas Watson recommended that physicians and birth attendants wash their hands and use chlorine between patients. In 1847, Ignaz Semmelweis reduced the rate of fever in his obstetric ward by ordering hand washing, but the idea was still rejected by the medical industry at large. A famous victim of puerperal fever was Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. In 1797 she gave birth to her daughter Mary with the assistance of a midwife. But then a doctor was called to help remove the placenta and he came quickly, with unwashed hands. Wollstonecraft died a painful but typical death over the next week.

Photograph by Billy Hathorn.

Pioneers who settled the American West didn't have it much better than their eastern or European counterparts. Both doctors and midwives were scarce, and the midwives who were able to help in childbirth rarely had more knowledge than the experience of giving birth themselves. Infant mortality remained high, but the isolation of living on wilderness farmland many miles away from settled towns had one advantage: the spread of disease was lessened somewhat.

Childbirth changed dramatically in the 19th century with the introduction of anesthetics. Dentist William Morton developed the use of ether for surgery in 1846. Obstetrician Sir James Young Simpson introduced chloroform as an anesthetic in 1847. Queen Victoria used chloroform during her eighth delivery in 1853. The practice of childbirth anesthesia spread quickly afterward, despite protests from the clergy, who claimed that labor pains are God's will.

In 1914, a method called Twilight Sleep was developed, which involved morphine and scopolamine. The mother slept through delivery, but the drugs also affected the baby, and sometimes the child didn't breathe at all. The morphine also caused some mothers to die in childbirth. 

Comic by Kate Beaton.

In the 20th century, advances in medicine and germ theory raced ahead of public health and the access of the lower classes to medical care. When Dr. Josephine Baker was appointed as city health inspector for the Hell's Kitchen area in 1901, she found that 1,500 newborn babies died in the district every week. Her crusade to improve prenatal care and child health practices involved inventing formula, opening clinics, launching a school lunch program, training babysitters, and opening milk stations in the city, and it resulted in a huge decrease in infant and child deaths.

Childbirth, though still an ordeal, is much safer today for mothers. Children are much more likely to survive to adulthood. And widely available birth control gives people the option of deciding when and how many children to have. But the hard part comes after childbirth -raising a family, which is more complicated every day. And that's why you should honor your mother this Mother's Day.

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May 9, 2013 - 4:05pm
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