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Midwifery - Early Historical Perspective

Early Historical Perspective

The history of midwifery due to its importance it is assumed that midwifery has existed as long as human civilization.

In ancient Egypt, midwifery was a recognized female occupation, as attested by the Ebers papyrus which dates from 1900 to 1550 BCE. Five columns of this papyrus deal with obstetrics and gynaecology, especially concerning the acceleration of parturition and the birth prognosis of the newborn. The Westcar papyrus, dated to 1700 BCE, includes instructions for calculating the expected date of confinement and describes different styles of birth chairs. Bas relief's in the royal birth rooms at Luxor and other temples also attest to the heavy presence of midwifery in this culture.

Midwifery in Greco-Roman antiquity covered a wide range of women, including old women who continued folk medical traditions in the villages of the Roman Empire, trained midwives who garnered their knowledge from a variety of sources, and highly trained women who were considered female physicians. However, there were certain characteristics desired in a “good” midwife, as described by the physician Soranus in the second century. He states in his work, Gynaecology, that “a suitable person will be literate, with her wits about her, possessed of a good memory, loving work, respectable and generally not unduly handicapped as regards her senses [i.e., sight, smell, hearing], sound of limb, robust, and, according to some people, endowed with long slim fingers and short nails at her fingertips.” Soranus also recommends that the midwife be of sympathetic disposition (although she need not have borne a child herself) and that she keep her hands soft for the comfort of both mother and child. Plainly, another physician from this time, valued nobility and a quiet and inconspicuous disposition in a midwife. A woman who possessed this combination of physique, virtue, skill, and education must have been difficult to find in antiquity. Consequently, there appears to have been three “grades” of midwives present in ancient times. The first was technically proficient; the second may have read some of the texts on obstetrics and gynaecology; but the third was highly trained and reasonably considered a medical specialist with a concentration in midwifery.

Midwives were known by many different titles in antiquity, ranging from iatrinē, maia, obstetrix, and medica. It appears as though midwifery was treated different in the Eastern end of the Mediterranean basin as opposed to the West. In the East, some women advanced beyond the profession of midwife (maia) to that of obstetrician (iatros gynaikeios), for which formal training was required. Also, there were some gynaecological tracts circulating in the medical and educated circles of the East that were written by women with Greek names, although these women were few in number. Based on these facts, it would appear that midwifery in the East was a respectable profession in which respectable women could earn their livelihoods and enough esteem to publish works read and cited by male physicians. In fact, a number of Roman legal provisions strongly suggest that midwives enjoyed status and remuneration comparable to that of male doctors. One example of such a cited midwife is Salpe of Lemnos, who wrote on women’s diseases and was mentioned several times in the works of Pliny.

However, in the Roman West, our knowledge of practicing midwives comes mainly from funerary epitaphs. Two hypotheses are suggested by looking at a small sample of these epitaphs. The first is the midwifery was not a profession to which freeborn women of families that had enjoyed free status of several generations were attracted; therefore it seems that most midwives were of servile origin. Second, since most of these funeral epitaphs describe the women as freed, it can be proposed that midwives were generally valued enough, and earned enough income, to be able to gain their freedom. It is not known from these epitaphs how certain slave women were selected for training as midwives. Slave girls may have been apprenticed, and it is most likely that mothers taught their daughters

The actual duties of the midwife in antiquity consisted mainly of assisting in the birthing process, although they could also help in other medical problems relating to women if needed. Often, the midwife would also call in a physician to be on-call with her in case a more difficult procedure was needed during an abnormal delivery; and in most cases she brought along two or three assistants. In antiquity, it was believed by both midwives and physicians that a normal delivery was made easier when a woman sat upright. Therefore, during parturition, midwives brought a stool to the home where the delivery was to take place. In the seat of the chair was a crescent-shaped hole through which the baby would be delivered. The chair also had armrests for the mother to grasp during the delivery. Most chairs had backs which the patient could press against, but Soranus suggests that in some cases the chairs were backless and an assistant had to stand behind the patient and support her. The midwife then faced the patient, gently dilating and pulling the fetus forward, all the while instructing the mother on proper breathing and how to push downwards during a contraction. The assistants helped by pushing downwards on the patient’s abdomen. Finally, the midwife received the infant, placed it in pieces of cloth, cut the umbilical cord, and cleansed the baby. The child was sprinkled with “fine and powdery salt, or natron or aphronitre” to soak up the birth residue, rinsed, and then powdered and rinsed again. Next, the midwives cleared away any and all mucus present from the nose, mouth, ears, or anus. Midwives were encouraged by Soranus to put olive oil in the baby’s eyes to cleanse away any birth residue, and to place a piece of wool soaked in olive oil over the umbilical cord. After the delivery, the midwife made the initial call on whether or not an infant was healthy and fit to rear. She inspected the newborn for congenital deformities and testing its cry to hear whether or not it was robust and hearty. Ultimately, midwives made a determination about the chances for an infant’s survival and likely recommended that a newborn with any severe deformities be exposed.

A second-century terracotta relief from the Ostian tomb of Scribonia Attice, wife of physician-surgeon M. Ulpius Amerimnus, details a childbirth scene. Scribonia was a midwife and the relief shows her in the midst of a delivery. A patient sits in the birthing chair, gripping the handles and the midwife’s assistant stands behind her providing support. Scribonia sits on a low stool in front of the woman, modestly looking away while also assisting the delivery by dilating and massaging the cervix, as encouraged by Soranus.

The services of a midwife were not inexpensive; this fact that suggests poorer women who could not afford the services of a professional midwife often had to make do with female relatives. Many wealthier families had their own midwives. However, the vast majority of women in the Greco-Roman world very likely received their maternity care from hired midwives, either highly trained or possessing a rudimentary knowledge of obstetrics. Also, many families had a choice of whether or not they wanted to employ a midwife who practiced the traditional folk medicine or the newer methods of professional parturition. Like a lot of other factors in antiquity, quality gynecological care often depended heavily on the socioeconomic status of the patient.

During the Christian era in Europe, Midwives became important to the church due to their role in emergency baptisms, and found themselves regulated by Roman Catholic canon law. In Medieval times, childbirth was considered so deadly that the Christian Church told pregnant women to prepare their shrouds and confess their sins in case of death. The Church pointed to Genesis 3:16 as the basis for pain in childbirth, where Eve's punishment for her role in disobeying God was that he would "multiply thy sorrows, and thy conceptions: in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children." A popular medieval saying was, "The better the witch; the better the midwife"; to guard against witchcraft, the Church required midwives to be licensed by a bishop and swear an oath not to use magic when assisting women through labor.