Birth 'n' History

Knowledge of our history is one of the most powerful tools we have for understanding our current choices, path and the future. If we don't know our history, well then, they say "it often repeats itself".

I would never have considered myself a "history buff", but, it appears if I have the right topic I can spend weeks on the history of it! Enjoy! * this is a work in progress!


2nd Century BCE


1323-1295 B.C. - Egypt's 18th Dynasty, reign of King Horemheb. Queen Mutnodjmet died between the ages of 40 and 45 and among her remains showed signs of previous difficult deliveries as well as the bones of a fully developed fetus. Perhaps she died in childbirth. 



1st Century BCE - Midwives remain the most knowledgeable and respected resource for pregnancy and birth support. Throughout this Century there appears to be more interest in the mechanistic and operational nature of the human body and during this time it is recognized that women and men are fundamentally different, but women are considered to be weaker in nature, both physically and emotionally. Aristotle (b. 384 BCE) is among those interested in understanding the human body, including the mysteries of the woman and the intricacies of pregnancy and birth.

In Ancient Egypt, papyri have been discovered with numerous accounts of tests for pregnancy, to determine the sex of the fetus, concoctions used to induce labor, treatments for infertility, methods and herbs for contraception, and more. The estimated gestation was 271 to 294 days (today's modern count is 282 days from onset of the last menstrual cycle). Only females were allowed to handle birth, poor women having two or three women support them and wealthier women having servants and nurses. There are no words in the Egyptian language for midwife or obstetrician. Women are often depicted in hieroglyphics as kneeling, squatting, or sitting on a birth stool. Women nursed their children for about 3 years and often carried them in slings and wraps for the first years of their life.


2nd Century - Soranas, a Greek Physician, writes a book on Obstetrics and Gynecology. This is the leading text for the next thousand years. It contained information such as: how distinguish a fertile woman; discussion on how thoughts shape a child (physically and mentally); the moderation of everything in pregnancy (sex, drinking, types of food); positions for optimal baby development, labor, and birth; birth control methods such as jumping and kicking your butt after sex, or sneezing after sex.

This is also the beginning of the Hippocratus Corpus in Ancient Greece, where physicians attempted to standardize medical practices. The general belief of this time is that women are fundamentally different than men and that are inherently weaker and more susceptible to issues and disease.

Galen, a Physician and Philosopher, promotes orgasms as essential for conception and publishes sex guides.

11th Century - Birth Manifesto is published by Tortula, said to be a midwife. Could have been written by many people under one alias, or a woman publishing under an alias. Fairly comprehensive manifesto about birth, complications, and midwifery skills.

14th Century - Japenese records indicate that if a baby was stuck in the birth canal, a tool made of nets and whale bone was used to hook the baby out. :(

16th Century - Brings about a shift in birth culture. In Europe, the "Barber-Surgeon" is a position that can only be held by men and Medicine is the domain of men. Midwives begin to be slandered as witches and accusations against them increase and women being burned at the stake becomes more common.

1508 - Story of Jacob Nufer, a Swiss pig gelder, who delivered successfully delivered his baby via C-Section... not sure if the wife survived, but it is likely that he performed the Cesarean because she had died or was dying, so it was successful in that the baby lived when they wouldn't have without a Cesarean.

1513 - Eucharius Rosshin, a physician, writes "The Rose Garden for Pregnant Women & Midwives", translated into 5 languages... he had never actually attended a woman giving birth.

1522 - Dr. Wertt, a German doctor, is sentenced to death for sneaking into a delivery room, dressed as a woman.

1544 - The first English Obstetrics textbook is written by Thomas Raynalde, called the Birth of Mankynde.

1569 - The Chamberlen family invents their "secret tool" - FORCEPS. It is hard to know which of the many Peter Chamberlen's invented the Forceps, as most of them were barber-surgeons, and even the one's that weren't may have dabbled in the baby delivering business, anyway! The family keeps the invention a secret and even goes to such lengths as blindfolding laboring women and kicking everyone out of the room to ensure their monopoly on 'safe' high-class birth existed for over 150 years... the business of controlling birth for a profit was born. Although they developed a potentially life-saving tool, they monopolized the invention for profit - scumbags.

1591 - Eufame Maclayne is burned at the stake for asking for pain relief during childbirth

17th Century - Badmouthing and slander campaigns against Midwives begin. Cesarean Operation is improving and its use is increasing.

1634 - Peter Chamberlen (the younger, one of many Peter Chamberlens) petitions the King for a Midwives Corporation, that he would run... and wouldn't really be 'for the midwives', but rather damaging against them. 

1644- 1912 - Chinese Qing Dynasty heralds the creation of the Chinese Gender Chart. Boys are desired more than girls due to the physical demands of agricultural work (the main work of the Chinese people during this time) and due to the fact that inheritance is given to males, the Chinese see having a girl as raising a female for someone else's family to benefit from. There is a gender chart for fun below, mine was actually right!!


1647 - Peter Chamberlen (the Younger) publishes "The Cry of Women and Children", which was a diatribe against midwives and one of medicine's first attempts to usurp midwifery and monopolize birth.

1732 - A Dutch physician sells the design of Forceps for public knowledge and use in England, over 130 years after the invention. The Forceps invention had been sold to a Dutch Physician before him who had kept it secretly to turn a profit for 60 years.

1773 - Charles White, a British Obstetrician, is a very early pioneer in germ theory and he makes his students wash their hands between cadavers and patients.

1797 - Activist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin dies of Puerperal Fever, or Childbed Fever. Her surviving newborn is the future author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelly.

1817 - Princess Charlotte Augusta in Wales dies after a prolonged labor and it is believed that Forceps could have helped her survive. The use of Forceps increases rapidly.

1822 - Story of 14 year old giving her-self a Cesarean Section, in the snow. A doctor stitches her up and she supposedly survives.

1830 - 1849 - Experimentation on female slaves to learn how to repair vesico-vaginal fistulas. Two recognized doctors for this: John Peter Mettauer and James Marion Sims.

1836 - The Lancet, a British medical journal, publishes an article blaming rotten breastmilk leaking down, into the mother, as the cause for Childbed Fever. Others also blame constipation, anxiety, and wafts of cold air into the cervix... anything but the doctor as a vector for disease.

1853 - Queen Victoria requests the use of Chloroform during the birth of Prince Leopold.

1865 - Dr. Ignac Semmelweis, a physician in Germany, conducts research at his hospital into the cause for high maternal mortality rates and later proposes a "Germ Theory". He recognizes that a nearby clinic staffed only with midwives has a significantly lower maternal mortality rate than the hospital clinic, then, when a fellow physician dies of symptoms similar to "Childbed Fever" after being cut with a scalpel while working on a cadaver; he proposes that "cadaverous particles" are carried on the doctors hands and he transmits them to his patients, the most vulnerable of which were birthing mothers.

1879 - Another do-it-yourself Cesarean Section story, a Turksih woman uses a razor to self-section, a neighbor stitches her up and both her and the baby survive.

1882 - Dr. Max Sanger uses aseptic techniques and silk thread in his Cesarean Sections and he demonstrates an increase in survival rate from 30-50% to 80%.

1892 - " Do-it-yourself" Forceps are invented...

20th Century - During this next 100 years we see even greater intervention and experimentation with Birth. More and more doctors are advocating for the use of Forceps as a way to speed delivery, Cesarean sections increase in popularity, and medical technology focuses on ways to manage, speed, and control birth. Fortunately, Germ theory is increasing in acceptance and hand-washing techniques become more widespread; increasing the safety of Cesarean Sections and all practices around birth. This is also a tragic and dark time, we see the introduction and widespread use of Twilight Sleep, where women were tied down, in pain, and with no sense of self-control, but the drugs made it so they couldn't remember they had given birth to their baby. The campaign against midwives spreads, at the turn of the century midwives are attending about half of all births, by the end of the century it is less than 6%. 

1908 - Franklin S. Newell, a Doctor at Harvard, routinely used Forceps to deliver "over-civilized" women. He speaks of the notion that some women are "too posh too push" and envisioned a future where C-Sections were scheduled for the wealthy.

1914- "Twilight Sleep"refers to a condition experienced by women given Morphine (pain) and Scopolamine (amnesiac) while in labor. Women were conscious, but insensible and often screamed, thrashed, and fought while birthing their baby... but they didn't remember any of it, and dads weren't allowed in the birth room - leaving the medical practice unchecked. Twilight sleep was first introduced to wealthy women and was advertised as a sign of wealth and status - You can deliver pain free and without memory of the traumatic event, literally. Nurses used lamb's wool inside the restraints to prevent bruising on the wrists and ankles, from the thrashing, so that husbands wouldn't inquire about any marks on their wives. This practice was eventually abandoned when the negative side-effects were revealed - side effects like depressed infant breathing and lethargy, as well as the mother's inability to recall giving birth to her child. But, as with most medical practices in childbirth, it took decades before the harmful and disrespectful practice was ended, in the early 1970's.

1915 - Dr. DeLee greatly influences the medical paradigm of childbirth with his popular Obstetrics textbook and his powerful positions at academic institutions like Northwestern and Chicago. DeLee viewed birth as a damaging pathological process and felt that all women should receive sedatives, ether, episiotomy and the use of forceps to remove the baby; this is published in the first issue of the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. He continues the push to end midwifery practice and argues that midwives are untrained and incompetent to handle a dangerous event such as birth. He also argues that midwives shouldn't even attend the poor and black women, since they are needed as training for new doctors in Obstetrics. What a horrible man.

1925 - Mary Breckinridge starts the Frontier Nursing Service in a poor, rural county in Kentucky. She gained midwifery knowledge and skills from British midwives while serving as a public health nurse in France during World War I. Nurse-midwives attend only home-births until the mid 1950s when practices and hospitals slowly opened their practices to them for help with the "baby boom" and to improve care.

1933 - A New York City maternal mortality investigation blames the 2.2% Cesarean Section rate on the high number of deaths. The NYC Lying-in Hospital had a 4.98% maternal death rate for private patients and a 3.28% for other patients (wealthier patients were getting more Cesareans).

1935 - Midwives are attending less than 15% of births.

1960 - There are approximately 70 Nurse-midwives practicing in the U.S.Although few in numbers, there influence was powerful. They introduced the concept of family-centered maternity care, ushered fathers into the birth room, helped develop the concept of childbirth education, contributed to the practice of rooming-in, where mother and baby are kept together, and encouraged breastfeeding at a time when most hospitals strictly taught formula feeding and provided pills to dry a mothers milk supply.

1979 - Dr. Florence Haseltine, an Obstetrician, has a scheduled Cesarean. The Cesarean Section rate in the U.S. is at 15%.

China introduces "One-Child Policy" which doesn't apply to everyone. They are also encouraging the use of other family planning methods such as contraception, sterilization, and they remove restrictions on abortion. This is all in acknowledgement that their population is growing too quickly and they need to curb, or even end, population growth.

1987 - U.S. Maternal Mortality Rate is only 6.6 per 100,000 live births, the lowest it has ever been recorded.

2005 - Nearly 1 in 3 babies are born by Cesarean Section in the U.S. The Maternal Mortality Rate reaches 13.3 per 100,000 live births.

2011 - 1 in 3 babies are still born by Cesarean Section in the U.S., 99% of births occur in the hospital and far too many women are still receiving NON-evidence-based practices such as induction, continuous fetal monitoring, pushing in the lithotomy position, and episiotomy. Our Infant Mortality rate is 6.05 per 1,000 live births (ranked 27th among industrialized nations), although it is twice as high for African-American women. Our Maternal Mortality Rate is 12.7 per 100,000 live births, African-American women have a MMR of 34.8 per 100,000 live births, they are 3.2 times more likely to die from childbirth related causes than Caucasian women.


Let's continue to make history and fuel a birth revolution!
~Wisdom and Birth


Some major resources for this information include:
Birth: The Surprising History of How We are Born by Tina Cassidy
Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank by Randi Hutter Epstein

*Since history is ALWAYS a work in progress, please feel free to share important historical notes (with dates and an explanation) to be added to the timeline :)

1 comment:

  1. I visited your blog for the first time and just been your fan and get many informative information about the birth.

    delivery of a c-section baby

    ReplyDelete