A century ago, almost every Australian woman knew someone who had died during childbirth.
Thus, when women fell pregnant, they were well aware of the risk. Some were, rightfully, terrified.
Once understood to be a natural life event, giving birth was now (at least to city women) thought to be an injury or crisis. And sometimes, for the first time in history, childbirth required medical intervention.
‘Experts’ like John D. West wrote extensively about motherhood, and said a woman knows she’s pregnant when she experiences a “depraved appetite”.
“The woman eats enormously, for her, and still is always hungry,” he explained. “This craving will sometimes compel her to get up at midnight and eat… if she refuses to satisfy this craving for particular kinds of food, the thought of it will haunt her day and night.”
LISTEN: Midwife Cath shares on Mamamia’s pregnancy podcast, Hello Bump, how you know if you’re going to have an easy birth. Post continues below.
As an aside, I am not pregnant, but West has managed to summarise my life in two sentences.
Furthermore, it was said that succumbing to such cravings would result in your child having an ugly birthmark. Jesus.
In the early 20th century, 90 per cent of doctors had no formal qualifications. They’d been trained on the job. With that said, there were a number of developments during the late 19th century regarding sanitation and infection, which would save countless lives.
Most women still gave birth at home, but for those who went to a hospital while in labour, the first thing a nurse or doctor would do was cleanse the abdomen, thighs and external genitals.
In order to adequately do this, they would cut or shave the woman’s pubic hair, before scrubbing her with warm, sterile water and soap, and after drying, bathing her in bichloride solution or Lysol, in order to render her surgically clean.
Women would then labour in beds on their back with their feet in stirrups, now known to be a “less than optimum” position for childbirth.