Sunday, 10 July 2011

Pregnancy and Birth

Maria Duchess of Gloucester with child
It is my intention to explore the nature of an eighteenth century person’s life at every stage – from infancy to death. I will therefore begin with describing the general experience of childbirth in Georgian times:
The most prominent name in eighteenth century obstetrics was undoubtedly the Scottish doctor, William Smellie, author of the Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery (1752) who revolutionised birthing practices in Britain and claimed to have, during his lifetime, delivered more than a thousand women. In his London practice, he taught some 900 doctors and ‘a few female students’ the necessary skills to successfully deliver babies and he notes that he invariably employed in his lectures "machines which I have contrived to resemble and represent women children”. Smellie also introduced into polite society the concept of man-midwives (or accoucheurs) who, given their superior strength to (most) midwives, were able to actively intervene during difficult births by employing obstetrical forceps (which were designed by Smellie). Indeed, a 1746 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine notes that “an eminent man midwife” was sued for 1000 pounds for not having arrived in time to deliver a child.
A multitude of advice books were published on the subject of pregnancy and birth. Eliza Smith’s Complete Housewife or
Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion
  contained a recipe for a draught "to prevent miscarrying" and another "to procure easy be taken twice a day for six weeks before the time.” The Ladies Dispensary, or Every Woman Her Own Physician (1739) advised (rather ambiguously) that a woman "should avoid [during pregnancy] every thing that might anyway prove offensive but may drink a little wine to comfort her stomach." It is noted that "particular Regard must be had to gratify her desires." During labour, the same book prescribes:

wine occasionally diluted with water may be used for common drink for some time before and after delivery. It is customary in the very Hour to administer a Glass of some cordial water [i.e. Gin] between whiles [contractions]....and when the whole affair is over...a proper cordial [i.e. liquid laudanum] or a glass of hot wine ought instantly to be given her.
During labour, while Smellie instructed that doctors were to be “agreeable to the distressed patient.” He advised that:
if the mother and her assistants [friends and relatives] are clamorous that she should be given medication, first try argument and gentle persuasion, but if they still insist, give her some innocent Placemus [placebo] to beguile the time and please her imagination.
The same book advocated breastfeeding, arguing “Can you think that Nature should have furnished women with those two beautiful excresences for ornament alone?”
 Smellie insisted that a mother ought to enter in to a period of complete bed rest for a period extending up to five days after even a normal delivery. Prior to the birth, in order to ensure that this subsequent period rest remained uninterrupted, Smellie recommended that the attendants should see to:

covering up the floors and stairs with carpets and cloths, oiling the hinges of the doors, silencing the bells, tying up the knockers, and in noisy streets strewing the pavements with straw.
Eliza Smith’s instructions read that the newborn was be bathed in “small beer and butter” and she notes that:
'tis a usual thing to give him a little fresh butter and sugar to clear his breathing and purge off excrementitious matter from the Bowels...a little warm wine should be poured down the throat or squirted up the nostrils... but he should not have brandy, geneva, aniseed water or any of the like fiery cordials.
If the baby did not breathe initially Smellie’s recommendation was that “it must be moved, shaken, whipt: the head, temples, and breast rubbed with spirits, garlics, onions or mustard applied to the moth and nose.” If all else failed, the attendant must “try blowing into the infant’s as to expand the lungs.” Aferwards, Eliza Smith maintained that the baby “should lie with his head comfortably raised, that the Phlegm...may the readier be discharged, and suffocation prevented.” She scoldingly remarks that “..the sudden deaths of young children...are very often owing to a neglect of this caution.” Dr Smellie simply noted  that the baby ought to be washed in water and dressed, and  “[the infant’s head should be] accommodated with a cap adorned with as much finery as the tire-woman shall think proper to bestow.”
Liza Picard notes that in 1747, “a clutch of maternity or lying in hospitals opened.” The Middle-sex Hospital off Tottenham Court Road opened a maternity ward in that year, in which:
Married women only [were] admitted in the last month of their pregnancy. They [were] to be under the care of the man-midwife, Mr Layard, to be delivered by him and furnished with all necessaries at the charge of the hospital...Tuesday is the day of admission but accident [sudden laborus] are admitted every day without recommendation [no need of a governor’s letter].

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