Contributions by the
Midwives of Antiquity to the
Art and Science of Modern Medicine


Historical Background of Midwifery

"The practice of midwifery is as old as the human race. Its history runs parallel with the history of the people and its functions antedate any record we have of medicine as an applied science. Midwives, as a class, were recognized in history from early Egyptian times. The practice of midwifery is closely bound by many ties to social customs and prejudices." [1925-A; Hardin, MD p. 347] ^104

"As a class midwives were recognized in history from early Egyptian times. In the history of European continent the practice of midwifery by the medical profession did not begin until the middle of the 16th century. [1911-E; PriceMD, p.221] ^103

"That Socrates' mother was a midwife bears testimony to the honorable nature of such a profession at a time when civilization in one of its highest forms was at its summit." [1911-G; BakerMD, p. 232] ^108

"The practice of midwifery dates back to the beginning of human life in this world. At this supreme moment of motherhood it is probable that some assistance has always been required and given. Its history runs parallel with the history of the people, and its functions antedate any record we have of medicine as an applied process. To deny its right to exist as a calling is to take issue with the eternal verities of life. [1911-G; BakerMD, p. 232]


Midwives of Great Antiquity
and Historical Influence

The mother of Socrates and the wife of Pericles were both midwives. Aristotle speaks of the wisdom and intelligence of the midwives of Greece.

Midwives had positions of authority and influence in Germany, France, and England, writing well-known treatises on midwifery (the art of normal childbearing) and obstetrics (management of the complications of childbearing).

France’s most famous midwife was Louise Bourgeois, born in 1553, who enjoyed great distinction as a teacher, author and midwife to the Royal Court for 27 years. She delivered the future Louis XIII and 6 children of King Henry IV. Another notable French midwife was Madame Le Boursier Du Courdray. Louis XVI gave her permission to go into the providences and give free instruction to the midwives. She invented a life-size mannequin for teaching purposes, permitting her to demonstrate the position of the baby and techniques of delivery.

According to Herbert Thomas, MD, Professor Emeritus of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Yale University and author of Our Obstetrical Heritage -- The Story of Safe Childbirth (1960), “The French midwives as a group were highly influential in advancing obstetrics.” Other French midwives of note were Marie Duges, chief midwife at the time of the French revolution and mother of the famous midwife Louis La Chapelle, born 1769.

The celebrated German midwife Justine Siegemundin (“Pious Justine”) who was Court Midwife to the Electorate of Brandenburg wrote an early midwifery text published in 1776. It was subsequently translated into Dutch and used in the universities of Germany. She was called a “lantern-bearer in the darkness of ignorance and superstition”.

Alice Dennis was a Danish royal midwife who attended Anne of Denmark.

Jane Sharp was the first English midwife to write a book on midwifery called "The Midwives Book or the Whole art of Midwifery Discovered; directing childbearing women in how to behave themselves (1671). Mrs. Margaret Stevens who delivered Queen Charlotte, wrote a “commendable treatise” call “The Domestic Midwife” giving instructions to midwives in the use of obstetrical forceps.

During the 1800s, Florence Nightingale, usually only remembered for her association with nursing, and was especially interested in midwifery and wrote a book on the subject. One of her nurses-- Dame Rosalind (Padget) was the leading spirit in founding the English Midwives Institute in 1881.

The literary works by these exceptionally gifted midwives did much to contribute to the understanding of normal labor and birth by “medical men” of the day. These midwifery textbooks, along with the work of the vivisectionists, laid the foundation for the classical obstetrical texts written during the renaissance period. The body of knowledge which has became the modern-day surgical discipline of obstetrics is directly traceable to these early midwives.


Midwives in the New World:

In the American colonies, Midwife Elizabeth Phillips held a commission as a midwife granted by the Bishop of London. She came to the new world in 1719. Mrs. Elizabeth Smithson of Guilford was a midwife and the mother in-law of the great cleric-physician Jared Elliot. Upon her death at the age of 86, Dr. Elliot preached a funeral sermon in which he declared; “She knew when to exert herself vigorously and also when it was her strength to sit still”. According to author Dr. Thomas that was “sound obstetrical doctrine then and now”.

Quaker midwife Anne Hutchinson was well respected for her skills as a midwife. Preacher John Cotton said of her: “She did much good in our towns, women’s meeting, travails (childbirth) and good discourses about their spiritual states.” A statute of Anne Hutchinson stands today in front of the present meeting place of the General Court of Massachusetts and a tablet in her memory is placed in the First Church of Boston. And last but certainly not least, history accords a special recognition of Scottish-born nurse-midwife Mary Breckinridge, widely recognized for her work in founding the Frontier Nursing Service in the Kentucky mountains.

No acknowledgment of the contributions of women to medical science would be complete without a special posthumous recognition of the 12 unnamed women whose untimely deaths presented vivisectionist Dr. Williams Hunter the opportunity to dissected their pregnant bellies. The direct knowledge gain by him in the dissecting of these 12 mothers-to-be was used in compiling of his famous and first-of-its-kind book entitled “The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus”, published on December 5, 1774. These unfortunate mothers advanced the science of anatomy and physiology by the most intimate of all gifts.

Concluding his chapter on the history of midwifery, Dr. Thomas strongly urges the obstetrical community to cooperate in the development of the professional midwifery as a reliable method of providing “efficient and sympathetic care for without a personalized type of care the start of family life is too often not what it should be”. Dr. Thomas cautions us to see “that the hands of these (midwives) are free and not tied by tradition and prejudice”.


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updated 3/5/97