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A National Portrait
Winter 2013

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collections in countway

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LABOR INTENSIVE: A plaster Dickinson-Belskie birth model, one in a series of reproductive anatomy educational tools created for the 1939 World’s Fair. Courtesy of the Warren Anatomical Museum.
LABOR INTENSIVE: A plaster Dickinson-Belskie birth model, one in a series of reproductive anatomy educational tools created for the 1939 World’s Fair. Courtesy of the Warren Anatomical Museum.
 

For millennia, mediating childbirth was the province of women. As the original obstetricians—from the Latin, obstetrix, “midwife”—women routinely assisted other women in giving birth at home. “Man-midwives,” or accoucheurs, became fashionable in seventeenth-century France and, later, in England, particularly for difficult births. In England, the Chamberlen family gained fame for its secret method of successfully assisting obstructed births. That procedure, which remained closely guarded for nearly a century, involved a type of forceps invented by a member of that family in the early 1600s.

a calculator for the rhythm method of birth control together with coins commemorating the 1723 pregnancy of Princess Elizabeth Christine of Bohemia
COIN TOSS: A Rythmeter (right), a calculator for the rhythm method of birth control, patented in 1947; and medals from the collection of Horatio Robinson Storer, Class of 1853, commemorating the pregnancy of Princess Elisabeth Christine of Bohemia in 1723. Rythmeter courtesy of the Harvard Medical Library. Medals courtesy of the Boston Medical Library.
 

Later innovations included the use of chloroform as an anesthetic and the implementation of antiseptic and aseptic practices, essential for successful cesarean deliveries. Early cesarean deliveries often failed, however, because of poor surgical techniques or infection. Improved surgical procedures and more in-hospital births brought double-digit reductions in the maternal mortality rate, but it was the advent of antibiotics that drove the rate down more than 70 percent before the close of the 1940s. By this time midwifery, renamed obstetrics, was taught in medical schools, and the role of women as obstetricians was diminishing.

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Issue

A National Portrait
Winter 2013

Topics

collections in countway

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