Day 2: Historical and contemporary comments by physicians about midwives ~ 1820 to 2014

by faithgibson on April 2, 2016

in Contemporary Childbirth Politics, Historical Childbirth Politics 1820-1980

A 30-day series of quotes spanning two hundred years ~ click here begin with Day 1

You can also read the entire series as a single post

Day 2 ~ 1881 to 1899

1881 ~Transaction of the Edinburgh Obstetrical Society“, Vol. 6, Session 1880-81, Edinburgh:  A discourse on childbed fever and why nurses who are menstruating are not fit to perform “certain work”

Dr. Keiller: (discussing puerperal fever) “…what he wished to insist on was that the nurses should not live in the Maternity Hospital, but some place near. He thought that they should specially insist on nurses being very cleanly in their persons, especially during their menstruation.” 

Dr. Taylor alluded to a correspondence which appeared some years ago in the British Medical Journal, affirming the truth … that a woman during her menstrual period was unfit to manipulate ham in the process of curing, the general experience being that ham so treated did not keep

The truth was that these popular beliefs were, as a rule, the result of intelligent observation and sagacious inference, and this one at least, was supported by not only amply testimony, but constantly recurring experience

They were all aware that whilst in some women menstruation was a comparatively local process, in others it was accompanied by characteristic emanations from the rest of the body, and these, proceeding from the hands and reaching the pork in the process of rubbing, could hardly fail to contaminate it

In the same manner, if these emanation be brought into contact with the raw surfaces which seem to be a necessary contingent of parturition [childbirth], how much more rapidly and certainly will mischief be done! If it affects raw pork, notwithstanding the intervention of salt used in rubbing, how much more rapidly will it be absorbed to the detriment of a living organism

Hence there is great need for the precautions which Dr. Keiller suggests. Not only should the nurses be separately housed, but the grave question forces itself upon us, “Should a menstruating nurses be allowed to [providing care] in cases of childbirth?” 

Introducing Dr J. Whitridge Williams, professor & author of Williams’ Obstetrics ~ remembered as the founding father of academic obstetrics in America; most influential obstetrician during the first four decades of the 20th century ~ 1893 to 1931

 ~ Dr. J. Whitridge Williams, MD, author of Williams’ Obstetrics textbook became the most influential obstetrician in the country.
After graduating from medical at the age of 22, Dr. J W Williams trained in gynecological surgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. In 1893 he was appointed associate professor of midwifery*.  He spent 2 years Europe for clinical training in obstetrics and pathology, then returned to John Hopkins, where he  was promoted to full professor of *obstetrics at the JH medical school and chief of obstetrics at JH University Hospital in 1899. He became Dean of the JH School of Medicine 1911.  

[**Between 1893 and 1899, the medical profession stopping using the historical word ‘midwifery’ for the medicalized management of pregnancy and childbirth and started calling it “obstetrics” instead, thus avoiding the socially awkward title of “man-midwife”.]


1899 ~ Dr. JW Williams’ comments on the disturbing professional rivalry between doctors who practiced obstetrics (historically a non-surgical discipline) and members of the new surgical discipline of gynecology. Dr-JW-WilliamsGeneral practitioners of obstetrics were not trained as surgeons, so when a labor patient needed a Cesarean section, he had to turn the case over to a gynecological surgeon.

This occasioned many bitter disagreements and hot tempers between the two type types of doctors, with raucous name-calling, occasional fisticuffs  and mutual distrust. Dr. Williams was convinced that neither professional could advance until both joined forces to create a hybrid profession of obstetrics and gynecology as a new surgical speciality in America:


“At present, gynecology considers that obstetrics [a separate medical discipline] should include only the conduct of normal labor, or at most … cases that can be terminated without radical operative interference, while all other conditions should be brought to him [the gynecologist]in other words, that the obstetrician should be a man-midwife.

The advanced obstetrician, on the other hand, holds that everything connected with the reproductive process of women is part of his field, and if this contention were sustained, very little would be left for the gynecologist.”

Day 3 ~ Quotes from 1903 to 1907 — more from Dr. J. W Williams and several of contemporary colleagues

Previous post:

Next post: