Celebrating 500 years of Pregnancy and Birth

Since April this year the library and archives of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has been involved in a Knowledge Exchange Partnership with The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities and the De Partu History of Childbirth Group.

The partnership mines the college’s rich collection of over 2000 books and extensive archive material dating from the 15th century to today and utilises the expertise of a wide range of healthcare professionals and academics. The Partnership aims to widen awareness of the heritage collections at RCOG and those of the Royal College of Midwives; to facilitate dialogue between academic researchers and healthcare practitioners on the history of pregnancy and birth; and to provide a forum for debates on current issues in their historical context.

Guiding out a breech (1690) from JustineSiegemund’s Die Chur-Brandenburgische Hof-WeheMutter (The Brandenburg Court Midwife)


From the birth experiences of royalty to those of the regular public, guidance on diet and exercise during pregnancy, and the medicalization of delivery, the science and experience of pregnancy and childbirth provides ample opportunity for discussion and exploration. On 4th September these debates and controversies were the subject of a study day and exhibition hosted by the College. The central theme of the day was a look at the past 500 years of innovation in the science and experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Topics covered included material comforts in the birthing room, favoured delivery positions, premature births, breastfeeding, and who used to be present at a birth. The study day was attended by researchers into midwifery, obstetrics and childbirth, qualified and student midwives, and other keen supporters of innovation and research into pregnancy and birth.


Domiciliary midwife at a birthing class
Domiciliary midwife’s class for pregnant mothers (c.1950-1960) from the Royal College of Midwives archive (ref. RCM/PH7/2/2)


The study day and its accompanying exhibition were devised and led by Professor Valerie Worth-Stylianou, Senior Tutor at Trinity College, University of Oxford and Mellon-TORCH Knowledge Exchange Fellow, and Dr Janette Allotey, Chair of De Partu, Honorary Lecturer at the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work at the University of Manchester.


Professor Valerie Worth (left) and Dr Janette Allotey during the opening talk on debates over delivery positions.

The day opened with welcome addresses by Ian Wylie, CEO of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and Louise Silverton, Director of Midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives on the history and role of both colleges in the past 500 years of research and advocacy for women, mothers and children. Professor Worth-Stylianou and Dr Allotey then led a discussion on positions for delivery. Professor Worth shone a light on the midwifery practices of 16th and 17th century Parisians, which included a fascinating account by Louise Bourgeois, scholar and midwife to the French royal family during the reign of King Henry IV and his wife Marie de Medici. Dr Allotey contrasted this historical perspective with a look at modern practices in birth positions and the autonomy of mothers in changing position and moving around during labour.


This was followed by a Keynote talk by David Hutchon, Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, on the history and practice of cord-clamping across cultures, from the works of Charles White and Erasmus Darwin in the 18th and 19th centuries to modern ethical debates surrounding the use of the placenta and umbilical cord in adult stem cell research.

There were two workshops in the afternoon, one led by Dr Julia Allison, from the University of Nottingham, on maternal comforts in the birthing room in early modern England. This workshop used Parish archival records and Dr Allison’s own artwork to give us a glimpse in the birthing chambers of Elizabethan Britain. The second workshop was delivered by Professor Billie Hunter of the University of Cardiff on the maternal comforts of 20th century birthing rooms, which showcased oral histories recording women’s experiences with childbirth, midwifery services and maternity services before the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948.

The day concluded with a chance to visit a poster display commissioned for the event in the corridor of the College’s Education Centre. The twelve posters capture key moments in development of obstetric and gynaecological practice taken from the College Library’s early printed books and from its archives. The posters are grouped to contrast the differences and similarities between historic and modern approaches to pregnancy and birth. A free accompanying guidebook is available beside the display.


In addition to the poster display there is currently a small exhibition of archive and library material in the College Library including the works of William Smellie and editions of early midwifery textbooks.


The study day was a huge success and discussion on personal and professional experiences of pregnancy and birth continued well into the afternoon. The College would like to thank Professor Worth and Dr Allotey for devising and organising the event, the De Partu History of Childbirth Group for supporting the project, and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities for funding the seminar and display.

The poster display accompanying the seminar will be up in the corridor leading from the museum display to the education centre at the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology until Christmas 2015

De Partu History of Childbirth Research Group

The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH)

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Midwife Kirsty Farrell says:

    Hi, Midwives of Ormskirk Hospital, Lancashire, we are wanting to put together a callander of “Midwifery throughout the ages” to raise funds for research into Stillbirth and funds towards improving our facilities for the use of parents who have suffered a stillbirth. Would appreciate any information/photos of /about history of Midwifery in England from Victorian era onwards uniforms styles, equipment ect. Many thanks, Midwives Ormskirk Hospital Lancashire X

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