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Monday, June 27, 2011

A Manhunt for Mississippi Midwives.

This morning I was on a manhunt. Well, a wife hunt. A midwife hunt, to be exact. A patron was looking for information on the particular midwife who delivered many members of her family in the 1930s. While that element of the search is still ongoing, I discovered many interesting things about early 20th century midwifery. Did you know that word is pronounced mid-wiffery and not mid-wife-ery? (That is not one of the things I learned today. I learned that one from watching Private Practice.)

Mississippi midwives were first granted permission to practice by the state in 1906. According to the Manual of Midwives, first published in the 20s and revised in 1948, “A survey in 1921 showed 4,209 women practicing midwifery in Mississippi. Ninety percent of them could not read or write, and a great number were old and filled with superstitious ideas. They did not understand the meaning of cleanliness and almost never called a physician for abnormal cases” (4). Therefore, the State Board of Health developed a plan in 1921 to improve midwifery in the state, which included training, registration, and frequent meetings of county midwives. “The type of meetings gradually changed from a disorderly group of women in dirty clothing with little interest or attention to a well-organized, eager, clean group with approved equipment and improved understanding of their work. Each year our midwives are more nearly approaching the French meaning of the word midwife -- Wise Woman” (4).

This is lovely.

(However, I checked the OED, and it’s more likely that the word merely takes the definition of mid, meaning with or together and sticks it with wife, meaning woman; a midwife is then the person who is with the woman when she gives birth. I know. The French way is much better. Sorry for being an etymological buzzkill.)

The Manual for Midwives is a really informative little booklet. It contains all kinds of information on the proper tools (proper tools in the 40s = terrifying in the 2011s), how to prepare dressings, the actual procedure for delivery (again terrifying), how to report the birth, etc. My favorite part is how to dress the patient: “The patient shall be covered with a clean sheet and blankets if needed, and wear a clean night gown and clean stockings” (32). CLEAN STOCKINGS! Oh, and p.s., you’re to burn or bury all the waste afterward.

The 1927-29 State Board of Health Annual Report has some interesting figures about midwives (and reverses the order in which the survey and the midwife plan were undertaken; I so enjoy finding inconsistencies like this). It also reveals that 90% of those participating in the original survey were illiterate and that 99% of them were black. An additional survey was taken in June 1929:

Midwives—original survey, July 1, 1921: 4209
Midwives—gave up work: 2495
Midwives—died: 675
Midwives—rounded up: 2001
Total on active list—June 20, 1929: 3040

By June of 1935, the number of midwives was down to 1276. My uneducated guess is that women were starting to have their babies in hospitals.

I took a look at the number of midwives per county with the overall black and white population; it comes as no surprise that Bolivar County, which had 120 midwives (the highest number in 1935), was 78% black and that Lamar County, with a lowly 4 midwives, was 74% white. I have to admit that at first I got my numbers reversed and got all excited that I had stumbled onto something absolutely intriguing in Mississippi health history, but these numbers make a lot more sense.

All of these numbers are interesting, but what I was hoping to find in these Annual Reports was a list of all the midwives in the state -- making my hunt for the 1930s midwife my patron was looking for that much easier. I didn’t find it, but if someone goes into labor in the library, I can whip out the old Manual for Midwives and help out until an ambulance gets here.

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