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Man-midwives

Man-midwives were male doctors who attended at births instead of female midwives. They were also known as ‘he-midwives’ or (more fashionably) as accoucheurs. After thousands of years of women-only births, male midwifery started suddenly in the early 1700s. University medical graduates, trained in modern anatomy, had become more confident. They also used forceps for difficult births. The midwifery forceps were invented by the Chamberlen family in the 1600s, and remained a family secret until the 1730s. Midwives complained of hundreds of male competitors taking up this lucrative new trade.

In England the wealthiest and most influential man-midwife was the Scottish surgeon William Smellie. Smellie improved the forceps and wrote a bestselling practical midwifery handbook. He taught many pupils, including the famous surgeon and obstetrician William Hunter. Hunter’s pupil William Shippen successfully introduced male midwifery to America. But in Germany female midwives were protected by being given better training and a new licensing system. In France, Italy and Spain the Catholic church insisted on the use of female midwives, to protect female modesty.

Bibliography

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

I Loudon, ‘Childbirth’ in W F Bynum & R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, 1 (London: Routledge, 1993), pp 1050-1053

L McTavish, ‘Blame and vindication in the early modern birthing chamber’, Medical History, 1/50/4 (October 2006), pp 447–464

R Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (London: Harper Collins, 1997)

Glossary:

Anatomy

A branch of medical science concerned with the structure of living organisms.

Forceps

A pliers-like medical instrument used to grasp tissue.

Obstetrics

A branch of medicine dealing with the care of women. This care occurs during pregnancy, childbirth, and the period of recovery from childbirth.