You are here

Week Three: Childbirth and Medicine, 1700 - 1850

This week we will explore the growing involvement of medical professionals in childbirth in eighteenth century Britain

As a number of historians have shown, childbirth in eighteenth century Britain ceased being an exclusively female domain. Medically-trained men came to displace midwifes in normal births within families of the landed elite and middle classes

The employment of these "men-midwives" was connected with growing medical interest in and investigation of the process of birth.

1792 cartoon of man-midwife
Cartoon of a midwife bisected into male and female halves. 'A Man-Mid-wife'. Engraving from Man-midwifery dissected... by Samuel William Fores, London 1793. Courtesy Wellcome Collection

Among the questions we will explore this week are:

  • What differences were there between the event of childbirth prior to the employment of male physicians?
  • What kinds of technological innovations resulted from physicians' involvement in the processes of childbirth?
  • What criticisms were leveled against "men-midwives'?
  • What criticisms did medical professionals level against midwives?

The readings for this tutorial are the primary and secondary readings listed in connection with last week's lecture.

I do not expect you to read all of these works, but rather to explore them and read at least a chapter or two from each.

Exton, Brudenell. A new and general system of midwifery, in four parts. By Brudenell Exton, M.D. Physician and Man Midwife to the Middlesex Hospital. The fourth edition. London, MDCCLXXI. [1771]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Queensland. 3 June 2010

Denman, Thomas. Aphorisms on the application and use of the forceps, on preternatural labours, and on labours attended with hemorrhage. By Thomas Denman, M. D. Physician-Man-Midwife to the Middlesex Hospital, and Teacher of Midwifery in London. London, Printed in the Year 1783. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Queensland. 3 June 2010

Gibson, John, surgeon and man-midwife in Harwich. Some useful hints and friendly admonitions to young surgeons on the practice of midwifery. By John Gibson, surgeon and man-midwife in Harwich. Colchester, 1772. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Queensland. 3 June 2010

Mears, Martha The pupil of nature; or candid advice to the fair sex, on the subjects of pregnancy; childbirth; the diseases incident to both; the fatal effects of ignorance and quackery; and the most approved means of promoting the health, strength, and beauty of their offspring. By Martha Mears, Practitioner in Midwifery. London, 1797. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Queensland. 3 June 2010

Journal Articles

The following articles are available online via the UQ Library:

Cody, Lisa Forman. 1999. The politics of reproduction: From midwives' alternative public sphere to the public spectacle... 1999. Eighteenth-Century Studies 32, (4) (Summer99): 477.

Cody, Lisa Forman. 2004. Living and dying in Georgian london's lying-in hospitals. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 78, (2) (Summer2004): 309-48.

Croxson, Bronwyn. 2001. The foundation and evolution of the Middlesex hospital's lying-in service, 1745-86. Social History of Medicine 14, (1) (04): 27-57.

De Brouwere, Vincent. 2007. The comparative study of maternal mortality over time: The role of the professionalisation of childbirth. Social History of Medicine 20, (3) (12): 541-62.

FIFE, ERNELLE. 2004. Gender and professionalism in eighteenth-century midwifery. Women's Writing 11, (2) (07): 185-200.

Hoolihan, Christopher. 1985. Thomas Young, M.D. (1726?-1783) and obstetrical education at Edinburgh. Journal of the History of Medicine & Allied Sciences 40, (3) (07): 327-45.

Lieske, Pam. 2000. William Smellie's use of obstetrical machines and the poor. Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 29, (01): 65-86.

Lloyd, Josephine M. 2001. The "languid child" and the eighteenth-century man-midwife. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 75, (4) (Winter2001): 641-79.

McClive, Cathy. 2002. The hidden truths of the belly: The uncertainties of pregnancy in early modern Europe. Social History of Medicine 15, (2) (08): 209-27.

Porter, Roy. 1983. William Hunter, surgeon. History Today 33, (9) (09): 50.

Thomas, Samuel S. 2009. Early modern midwifery: Splitting the profession, connecting the history. Journal of Social History 43, (1) (Fall2009): 115-38.

Williams, David Innes. 1998. The Obstetric Society of 1825. Medical History 42, (2) (04): 235-45.

Woods, Robert. 2008. Dr. Smellie's prescriptions for pregnant women. Medical History 52, (2) (04): 257-76.


Dally, Ann G. 1992. Women under the knife :A history of surgery. New York: Routledge.

Donnison, Jean. 1988. Midwives and medical men: A history of the struggle for the control of childbirth. 2nd ed. London: Historical Publications.

Murphy-Lawless, Jo. 1998. Reading birth and death: A history of obstetric thinking. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Shorter, Edward. 1983. A history of women's bodies. London: Allen Lane.

Smith, F. B. 1979. The people's health, 1830-1910. Croom helm social history series. London: Croom Helm.

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer