Coronavirus (Covid-19): Latest updates and information
Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Week 3: Childbirth, midwives and medical men, 1700-1900

Lecturer: Hilary Marland

From the eighteenth century onwards competition stepped up between female midwives and male accoucheurs or men-midwives. Male practitioners, armed with their new claims to authority and their obstetric instruments, began to criticise midwives for their traditional approaches and lack of formal training and to take over attendance at childbirth. By the turn of twentieth century, the location of childbirth had increasingly moved from home to hospital and struggles continued to establish authority and, for midwives, legal recognition. This week’s seminar will investigate the changing status of midwives and medical men; how childbirth went from being viewed as a traditional, female activity to a medical event; changing cultural and social practices surrounding childbirth; and how mothers themselves experienced these developments.


Discussion/Essay Questions:

  1. Why did midwifery become an area of conflict in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?
  2. In what ways did the experience of childbirth change between 1700 and 1900?
  3. 'There was no golden age in which women gave birth both safely and effortlessly’: is this an accurate portrayal of the risks of childbirth in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?

Required Reading:


Judith Walzer Leavitt, ‘Under the Shadow of Maternity: American Women's Responses to Death and Debility Fears in Nineteenth-Century Childbirth’, Feminist Studies, 12 (1986), 129-54. e-journal

Jürgen Schlumbohm, ‘Saving Mothers' and Children's Lives?: The Performance of German Lying-in Hospitals in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 87 (2013) 1-31. e-journal

Adrian Wilson, ‘The Perils of Early-Modern Procreation: Childbirth With or Without Fear?’, British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 16 (1993), 1-19. e-journal


Further Reading:


W.F. Bynum and R. Porter (eds.), William Hunter and the Eighteenth Century Medical World (1985).

L.F. Cody, Birthing the Nation: Sex, Science, and the Conception of Eighteenth-Century Britons (2005). e-book

L.F. Cody, ‘The Politics of Reproduction: From Midwives’ Alternative Public Sphere to the Public Spectacle of Man-Midwifery’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 32 (1999), 477-95. e-journal

M. Connor Versluysen, ‘Midwives, Medical Men and “Poor Women Labouring of Child”: Lying-in Hospitals in Eighteenth-Century London’, in H. Roberts (ed.), Women, Health and Reproduction (1981), 18-49.

B. Croxson, ‘The Foundation and Evolution of the Middlesex Hospital’s Lying-In Service, 1745-86’, Social History of Medicine, 14 (2001), 27-57. e-journal

M. DeLacy, ‘Puerperal Fever in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 63 (1989), 521-56. e-journal

J. Donnison, Midwives and Medical Men: A History of the Struggle for the Control of Childbirth (1988).

J. Donnison, ‘Medical Women and Lady Midwives: A Case Study in Medical and Feminist Politics’, Women’s Studies, 1976 (3), 229-50. STORE Journal

J. Lane, A Social History of Medicine: Health, Healing and Disease in England, 1750-1950 (2001), ch. 7.

J.S. Lewis, In the Family Way: Childbearing in the British Aristocracy 1760-1860 (1986).

I. Loudon, Death in Childbirth: An International Study of Maternal Care and Maternal Mortality 1800-1950 (1992).

T. MacIntosh, ‘Profession, Skill or Domestic Duty: Midwifery in Sheffield 1881-1936’, Social History of Medicine 11 (1998), 403-20. e-journal

L. Marks, ‘‘They’re Magicians’: Midwives, Doctors and Hospitals. Women’s Experiences of Childbirth in East London and Woolwich in the Inter-war Years’, Oral History, 23 (1995), 46-53. Course extract

H. Marland (ed.), The Art of Midwifery: Early Modern Midwives in Europe (1993, 1994). e-book

H. Marland, Dangerous Motherhood; Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain (2004). e-book

H. Marland and A.M. Rafferty (eds), Midwives, Society and Childbirth: Debates and Controversies in the Modern Period (1997). e-book

H. Marland, ‘Childbirth and Maternity’, in R. Cooter and J. Pickstone (eds), Medicine in the Twentieth Century (2000), 559-74.

A. Oakley, The Captured Womb: A History of the Medical Care of Pregnant Women (1984).

E. Peretz, ‘A Maternity Service for England and Wales: Local Authority Maternity Care in the Inter-War Period in Oxfordshire and Tottenham’, in J. Garcia et al., The Politics of Maternity Care (1990), 30-45.

R. Porter, ‘A Touch of Danger: The Man-Midwife as Sexual Predator’, in G.S. Rousseau and R. Porter (eds), Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment (1987), 206-32.

B.B. Schnorrenberg, ‘Is Childbirth any Place for a Woman? The Decline of Midwifery in Eighteenth-Century England’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 10 (1981), 393-408. STORE Journal

A. Wilson, The Making of Man-Midwifery: Childbirth in England, 1660-1770 (1995).

A. Wilson, ‘The Ceremony of Childbirth and its Interpretation’, in V. Fildes (ed.), Women as Mothers in Pre-Industrial England (1990), 68-107.

A. Wilson, Ritual and Conflict: The Social Relations of Childbirth in Early Modern England (2013). e-book