Birth Small Talk

Talking about birth

Interested in reading more history?

Kennedy, E. (1833). Observations on obstetric auscultation: With an analysis of the evidences of pregnancy, and an inquiry into the proofs of the life and death of the foetus in utero. Hodges and Smith. 

I was rereading parts from Kennedy’s observations on obstetric auscultation recently and found myself thinking that it would be good to read more of the history of maternity care. Reading primary sources (the words of people living and working during historical periods) like this is always fascinating, though they are hard to come by. Reading secondary accounts (written by people about historical figures and events) also provides lots of learning. In order to find more books to read, I recently posed a question, both on Facebook and Twitter, asking for recommendations of what to read. Many people introduced me to works that I didn’t previously know about, and reminded me of some already in my possession. I decided to list them all here in case others might find the list useful. (Some of the books, while fascinating, were not really about history, were fictionalised accounts, or were focussed on another aspect of reproductive health care. If you suggested something and it doesn’t appear here, that would be why.)

I have attempted to find details about each book from their publisher where this was available. Where this wasn’t forthcoming I have made use of links to online book sellers (note that this isn’t an endorsement of any particular seller). I have divided them up according to whether they are primary accounts or not and the country they relate to, then listed them from oldest to newest (based on the time period they relate to, not publication date).

Primary sources from the UK

The midwives book: or the whole art of midwifry discovered. Written in 1671 by Jane Sharp, this book is considered to be the first midwife manual published by a British midwife. Edited by Elaine Hobby and republished by Oxford University Press in 1999.

The midwife’s tale: An oral history from handywoman to professional midwife. The second edition was published in 2004 by Scarlet Press. Authors Nicky Leap and Billie Hunter have collated first hand oral accounts from midwives about their work in the period 1910 to 1950, prior to the introduction of the National Health Service.

Primary sources from the USA

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. Lauren Thatcher Ulrich used Ballard’s personal and professional diaries as the basis for her book, published by Vintage in 2010. Ballard provided midwifery care to women in Maine.

Tokology: A book for every woman. Written by American obstetrician / gynaecologist Alice Bunker Stockham in 1885, the book functioned as a self-help manual for women about reproductive issues. It is available as a reprint, published by several different publishers. It appears to be in the public domain, so there are online copies of the full text for free. Stockman was a reformer who offered free copies of her work to destitute women to sell as a means to break out of the cycle of poverty.

Listen to me good. The life story of an Alabama midwife. Coauthored by Margaret Charles Smith (the midwife whose life story is recounted) and Linda Janet Holmes, and published by the Ohio State University Press. Published in 1996, the book recounts Smith’s career as a midwife between 1949 and 1981.

Spiritual midwifery. I have included this one as history, though it also reads as a manifesto for birth reform. Ina May Gaskin’s book, published first in 1976, documents her personal progress into midwifery, providing a perspective on 20th century birth practices in the USA.

Primary sources from Europe

Mother and child were saved: The memoirs (1693 – 1740) of the Frisian midwife Catharina Schrader. This book has been translated to English by Hilary Marland and was republished in 1987 by Rodopi. It’s short at only 89 pages.

Primary sources from Australia

Active labour: Memoirs of a working class doctor. Percy Rodgers gives an account of his career as an obstetrician working in Australia and many other countries during the second half of the 20th centrury. Published by Blank Inc in 2018.

Secondary sources

Behind the blue door: History of the Royal College of Midwives 1881 – 1981. Written by Cowell and Wainright for the RCM anniversary in 1981.

Birth and the Irish: A miscellany. Newly published this year by Wordwell Books, this collection of works is part of a series that has previously examined death and marriage in Ireland. Editor Salvador Ryan is an Irish historian. The book spans a remarkable 1,500 year period.

Birth: The surprising history of how we are born. Tiny Cassidy, an American journalist wrote this book in 2006, published by Atlantic Monthly. The book retains a focus on the USA but explores birth history in other parts of the world as well.

Early midwives in Grafton and South Grafton. Written by Robyn Higham and published by the Clarence River Historical Society. This one holds special meaning for me. It was a great way to be introduced to the history of the town I worked in last year. Many of the birth houses and early hospitals in town are still there and I drove past several of them regularly.

Get me out: A history of childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the sperm bank. Written by American medical writer Randi Hunter Epstein and published in 2011 by WW Norton and company.

Lamaze: An international history. Author Paula Michaels has collated a comprehensive history of a particular approach to birth, originating in 1940s Russia. Published by Oxford University Press in 2014.

Midwifery and childbirth in America. Judith Pence Rooks 1997 book looks at the 20th century history of midwifery in America. Published by Temple University Press.

Midwifery from the Tudors to the twenty-first century: History, politics, and safe practice in England. Julia Allison’s book spans a 600 year period ending in the present day, exploring the politics and practices of English midwifery. Published by Routledge in 2020.

Midwifery in Scotland: A history. Midwife Lindsay Reid covers the history of the profession of midwifery for the entirety of the 20th century. I have read most of this one, and found it to be exceptionally well researched. Published by the Scottish History Press in 2011.

Midwives and medical men: A history of the struggle for the control of childbirth. Written by Jean Donnison and published by Phillimore and Company in 2007. The focus is on European and English history, particularly during the 17th century.

Neither mischievous nor meddlesome: The remarkable lives of North Queensland’s independent midwives 1890 – 1940. Self published by the author Trisha Fielding in 2019, the title of the book captures everything you need to know to decide whether this one interest you.

No births on Monday: A history of midwifery services in Australian rural and remote areas. Written by Mavis Gaff-Smith and published in 2010 by Triple D.

Quick, boil some water: The story of childbirth in our grandmother’s day. Scottish Midwife Yvonne Barlow includes first accounts from the 1940 to 1960s to tell the story of how approaches to birth and parenting have changed. Published by Bookline and Thinker in 2013.

Rediscovering birth. One of many books authored by anthropologist Shiela Kitzinger. The second edition was published by Pinter & Martin in 2011 but it appears to be out of print. The books uses a mix of history and the study of other cultures to explore women’s experience of pregnancy and birth.

Reading birth and death: A history of obstetric thinking. Written by sociologist Jo Murphy-Lawless this book is my absolute favourite of the list. I believe it is a “must read” for everyone who works in maternity care. Murphy-Lawless uses the history of puerperal sepsis in the 18th century in Ireland to examine the origins of obstetric philosophy.

Safer childbirth? A critical history of maternity care. Written by statistician Marjorie Tew, the second edition published by Springer in 1995. New examines evidence from the later 1800s through to the 1990s, mostly focussed on the question of whether birth was safer at home or in the hospital, but also looking more broadly at the issue of medicalisation in birth. This book is one I have read myself and I can recommend it as good background reading. From my recollection, it was primarily focussed on the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe for data.

Sex and suffering: Women’s health and a women’s hospital. Historian Janet McCalman was given access to records from the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia from 1850 to 1930. She has constructed a history childbirth and maternity care from these. Published in 1995 by Melbourne University Press.

Online resources

The Australian College of Midwives has compiled resources about the history of midwifery in Australia, including prior to the colonisation of Australia. It is comprehensive and easily accessible.

The rest is history: Childbirth. This podcast features historians talking about their particular area of expertise. This particular episode takes an interesting romp through historical realities and busts some myths along the way.

Any others?

Do you have any others to add to the list? Have you read any of the ones on the list? If so, what is your favourite and why?

Categories: Book reviews, History

Tags: , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. I tried to post the following comment:

    I would strongly recommend Midwives and Medical Men – A history of the
    struggle for the control of childbirth by Jean Donnison (1988) A history
    of midwives’ struggle against the domination of medical men.

    WordPress would not accept my password and then claimed that my user
    name did not match their records.  As I have never registered with
    WordPress before I am puzzled, and not a little irritated. Yours, Beverley


  2. Medical Dominance by Evan Willis. Published 1983. Not specifically about midwifery but does cover the rise of medicine over midwifery and explores the social and political attitudes that enabled it.


  3. I have a copy of rediscovering birth if you want it.

    Midwife / Maternal Child Health Nurse


  4. I am fascinated my placentas! I read this thesis by Jane Stovanovic when I was writing my Masters on cord clamping and learned heaps!


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