An Illness “peculiar to women”

Childbirth was commonly referred to as an illness in the eighteenth century. Midwives normally oversaw the delivery of babies. There were good reasons for this as one midwifery manual indicated: “There is a tender regard one woman bears to another, and a natural sympathy in those that have gone thro’ the Pangs of Childbearing; which, doubtless, occasion a compassion for those that labour under these circumstances, which no man can be a judge of.” Toward the end of the century, doctors might be called in to consult on particular cases. Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker of Philadelphia described in her journal the suffering experienced by her daughter during childbirth in 1799. Note Drinker’s suggestion for avoiding future pregnancies, the “specialist” called in to bleed Sally, and the early use of forceps.

My poor dear Sally was taken unwell last night. … [I] found Dr. Shippen half asleep in the back parlor by himself—I question’d him relative to Sallys situation, he said she was in the old way, and he think she dont require bleeding by her pulse. … This day is 38 years since I was in agonies bringing her into this world of trouble; she told me in tears that this was her birth day, I endeavour’d to talk her into better Spirits, told her that … this might possiably be the last trial of this sort, if she could suckle her baby for 2 years to come, as she had several times done heretofore &c. … between two and 3 o’clock in the morning Dr. Shippen desired Jacob to call up a John Perry, who lives near them, to open a vain, ’tho it is a opperation she very much dreads, she gave up to it without saying a word: he perform’d with great care and dexterity as I thought, he took twelve or 14 ounces. … she has taken 80 or 90 drops liquid laudanum during the day and night, but has not had many minuits of sleep for 48 hours—the Doctor says the child is wedg’d on or near the shear bone and he cannot get at it, to alter the position of its head. …

24th after breakfast … I went again to Sally, the Doctor had given her an Opium pill three grains he said, in order to ease her pain, or to bring it on more violently: neither appear’d to happen—in the Afternoon the Doctor said, the Child must be brought forward—he went out, which he had not done before. That he was going for instruments occur’d to me but I was afraid to ask him, least he should answer in the affermative—towards evening I came home as usual … when Dan [a servant] told us, that his mistress had a fine boy and was as well as could be expected … I was thankful, that I happened to be absent at the time, tho’ I intended otherwise … The child, said he [Dr. Shippen], is a very large one for Sally—It is a very fine lusty fatt boy. … The Doctor was very kind and attentive during the whole afflecting scene, was there two nights and 2 days and sleep’t very little—

Instruments were beginning to be used more frequently at this time. Dr. William Smellie, the author of An Abridgement of the Practice of Midwifery, reprinted in Boston in 1786, provides a description of forceps and suggestions for their use.

“The handles and the lowest part of the Blades … may be covered with any durable Leather, but the Blades ought to be wrapped round with something of a thinner kind, which may be easily renewed when there is the least suspicion of venereal Infection in a former Case; by being thus covered, the Forceps have a better hold, and mark less the Head of the Child. For their easier Introduction, the Blades ought likewise to be greased with Hog’s-lard.”

This excerpt is from In the Words of Women pages 174-75. The illustration is from the Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library in London.

posted April 23rd, 2012 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Childbirth, Health, Medicine


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