History of Midwifery

For many years the responsibility for delivering children lay in the hands of women.  Female midwives would attend to women in labour and with no formal training learnt their skill from experienced, older midwives.  Given the role of women in society at this time the formation of professional networks and guilds was not possible and it was not an area of medicine commonly investigated by the predominantly male medical profession until the 18th century when Edinburgh University was the first to appoint a Professor in Midwifery.  Dr Thomas Young was the third man to hold this role but the first to make any public lectures.  Within the Manchester Medical Manuscripts Collection there are many copies of lectures given by Young relating to gynaecology and he begins his 1779 lecture series with this somewhat disparaging remark towards the female midwives whilst also making clear just how important this area of medicine is:

“Midwifery, though formerly very much neglected, is certainly an art of the greatest importance toward the preservation of the human race, for by long and sad experience we find how absolutely it is necessary, from the number of lives lost, both of mothers and children, through the ignorance of those who practised it in the days when it was in the hands of the women; and it being confined to them alone was the only reason it was so neglected; they had no learning, knew nothing of the anatomy of the parts, and the greatest knowledge they could boast of was having born some children which some of them could not even boast of.”

Midwifery soon became an established part of medicine and in turn the medical men of Manchester embraced the practice and teaching of midwifery as is evidenced through the proportion of volumes in the Medical Manuscripts Collection relating to the subject.  These include lectures given by individuals such as Thomas Young, Thomas Pole, John Haighton, Thomas Denman, and Andrew Thynne as well as academic essays and more practical case books and records of births attended. Amongst this latter group of manuscripts can be found a volume entitled ‘A Memorandum of the Midwifery Cases Which I Have Attended’ by Richard Hardy, a Lancashire physician working in the area north east of Blackburn.  Covering the period 1794-1832 he often describes in detail some of the more difficult cases and we get a great insight into the attitudes and practices of the early 19th century man-midwife.


All the births are listed under the father’s name and there is often little information about the mother unless of course she is a single woman, and Hardy then often records more details about her age, marital status and the number of children she has.  As might be expected from this period the volume relates many sad cases but one of the more optimistic ones he describes occurred on the 15th October 1812 when he attended to the wife of George Wilkinson and successfully delivered her of a daughter which he describes as follows:

“The left hand and arm presented … by pushing up the child’s arm and hand gently with my left hand which I introduced and got hold of both feet which I brought down and delivered it as a footling case, she had no labour pains during the delivery, the child is alive but was weakly when born, it recovered its strength by letting the umbilical cord remain undivided for a longer time than common and keeping the child warm by wrapping it up in bed cloths … I left them both as well as could be expected.”

2 comments on “History of Midwifery

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