Colonial Midwifery

by Heather Whaley (Vanderbilt University)

Colonial Midwifery began with the Mayflower's journey in 1620. Bridget Lee Fuller delivered three babies during the two months long voyage and continued practice as a midwife in Plymouth for 44 years until her death in 1664. In addition, it is documented that one birth took place aboard the Arabella by a midwife that was brought on board from the Jewel. (1)

Among the many women pioneers in Colonial Midwifery a handful stand out. Anne Hutchinson was both a pioneer in civil liberty and religious toleration and a well respected midwife. One of her students, Jane Hawkins, delivered a "monster" baby and was suspected to worship the devil and practice witchcraft. Jane was later exiled along with Anne who was ultimately massacred by Native Americans. (2)

Many less known midwives were highly respected by their communities and their services were greatly appreciated. Ann Eliot was not known for anything new or controversial; however, she birthed over 3,000 children and garnered the respect of her community resulting in eight families making her the executor to their estates as they felt so indebted to her. Her epitaph reads "be ye blessing of God,…brought into this world above three thousand children." (3)

The first to employ a town midwife was New Amsterdam in 1660. The midwife was paid 100 guilders per year for attending the poor. In the south, plantations usually had a slave that acted as a midwife to both black and white mothers. As time went on, in the south, the majority of midwives were black. The further north, the more white midwives there were serving both the upper and lower classes. If she was a paid community employee she was given a house but could not refuse to help anyone who called upon her. (1)

Many of the midwives in early America acted under the supervision of Protestant bishops. This was considered important with the high infant mortality rate of over 50% in order to baptize the infant before its passing. Complications with childbirth were quite common and survival with some was rare. Puerperal fever was the most common, and became increasingly common as men entered into Obstetrics. This was because men employed more interventions and vaginal exams. In a time before the germ theory this was the cause of great infection. In the 18th century the only relationship that was made was that hemorrhage led to the Childbed fever. This was in fact happening as materials that were not clean were used to stop the bleeding. Another common complication, "milk leg," was swelling in the leg of the mother that happened on the third of fourth day and was thought to be caused by "bad" milk coming in; as women were confined to bed for up to weeks after their birth they were actually developing clots in the legs that caused them to swell.

Going into the 19th century, midwifery was dominated by men in America. In the late 18th century William Shippen established the first lying-in hospital in America in Philadelphia. He also participated in the founding of the University of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine, becoming their first professor of anatomy, surgery and midwifery, quite a mix!

The beginning of formal instruction geared towards men led to the swift demise of women in midwifery and the dawning of a more scientific era in healthcare. (4)

Image: John Ashton, Chap-books of the Eighteenth Century (1882). Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

1 Chaney, Judith A. "Birthing in Early America". Journal of Nurse-Midwifery March/April 1980: 25(2) p. 5-13.

2 Litoff, Judy B. American Midwives. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1978

3 Packard, Francis. History of Medicine in the United States. New York: 1931.

4 Donegan, J. Women & Men Midwives. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1978.

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  1. Thanks for posting this most informative article! See what a mess men make of things. LOL!

  2. Wow, I had no idea so many of the deaths were preventable. That's terribly sad.

    Great article! Well written.

  3. As a father of four all I can say is: "I'm glad I didn't have to go through childbirth more than once ... my own."

    An interesting paper on the state of healthcare in the 17th through 19th centuries. I would be interested in learning more about how this nearly forgotten tradition managed to survive and become en vogue again in the late 20th century.

    Nice work.

  4. Wow, fascinating stuff! I'd never even thought about how the profession would've evolved. Great article.

  5. Very interesting potted history! I was reading about Ignaz Semmelweis not so long ago - that is quite a tale too!

  6. I had heard before that childbirthing had a higher mortality rate before, but it's understandable. We've made strides in other health areas also.

    Morgan Mandel

  7. Interesting! As you might guess, this information was not something that I included in my colonial book for kids!

  8. I have so much respect for midwives. It's interesting to read about their long history in this country.

  9. Have you read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's _A Midwife's Tale_? I highly recommend it.


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