Birth: personal stories to population policies


Leah Astbury (Cambridge) – Delivered: After Birth Experiences in Seventeenth-Century England

In 1674, Francis Thornbaugh of the aristocratic Bedfordshire St John family wrote to his brother-in-law Oliver St John congratulating him on the birth of a daughter:I coul not signify unto you, my very great joy I received at the news of my sister’s safe delivery, and that God will still continue good unto her in the restoring of her to her former strength is my earnest praise.’This paper will investigate what constituted a ‘safe delivery’ for seventeenth century English women? How did early modern women understand the process of recovery, and at what point and under which conditions did they consider themselves ‘recovered’. Which conditions provoked women to pursue external medical help and consult a practitioner and when and why? At which point did women accept post-partum ailments as permanent and stopped seeking active cures? Employing printed medical literature, doctors case books, alongside correspondence and diaries of seventeenth century English families, this paper will argue that there were two intrinsic stages of recovery from childbirth. First, a woman had to rid herself of the vestiges of pregnancy through postpartum bleeding. After this had been achieved, care focused on healing, soothing and strengthening the new mother.

Leah Astbury is a second-year PhD student at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. She is part of the Wellcome Trust strategic award ‘Generation to Reproduction’. Her doctoral thesis examines maternal and infant health in seventeenth-century England. She is the recipient of the 2014 Social History Society Postgraduate Prize.

Alexandra Bamji (Leeds) – Childbirth, midwives and neonatal mortality in Venice, c. 1600-1797

Venice’s government took an active interest in a wide array of matters relating to health and the body throughout the early modern period, so it is striking that birth became a matter of interest to the Venetian Republic relatively late in the day. Although sumptuary legislation had sought to curb conspicuous consumption during birth and lying in from the sixteenth century, the first legislation with a medical dimension, which aimed to regulate midwifery, only appeared in the seventeenth century. Indeed, it was arguably as late as the 1770s that the practice of midwifery was systematically regulated by the Republic. Previous scholarship has argued for the medicalization of midwifery in a context of concerns about infant mortality and its impact on population levels at times of broader demographic anxiety. This paper seeks to complicate this picture in four ways. First, it analyses the language of perinatal mortality to challenge assumptions that understandings of neonatal mortality were unsophisticated before physicians and the state took a sustained interest in birth. Second, it highlights the role of experienced midwives in the licensing process. Third, it evaluates the nature of the training that was mandated for would-be midwives. Finally, it considers how developments in midwifery related to the broader medical context, especially parallel developments in surgery and the status of surgeons in the city.

Alex Bamji is Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on religious practices, disease and death in early modern cities, especially Venice. She has published on the Catholic lifecycle and is co-editor of a volume of the Venetian hospital of San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti which will be published next year.

Adrian Bingham (Sheffield) – ‘Letting in some daylight?’ The popular press and sex education in twentieth-century Britain

Popular newspapers have played a central role in shaping public understandings of sex and sexuality. This paper offers an overview of how the popular press viewed its responsibilities in terms of informing and advising its readers on issues of sexual welfare. It suggests that in the first four decades of the century, editors and journalists generally shied away from an explicitly educational role on sexual matters, but during and after the Second World War, certain papers, such as the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Pictorial, started to campaign against sexual ignorance and popularised ‘modern’, scientific approaches to sex. Such approaches coexisted uneasily with the similarly prominent attempts to use sex to titillate and entertain. In the 1970s the Sun increasingly cast aside instructional and scientific languages in favour of more hedonistic and consumerist discourses. Sex education was now viewed in terms of maximising sexual pleasure and improving sexual technique rather than avoiding pregnancy or disease.

Adrian Bingham is Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. He has written widely on the press coverage of sexuality and sexual welfare, notably in his monograph Family Newspapers? Sex, Private Life, and the British Popular Press 1918-1978 (OUP, 2009), and articles such as ‘The “K-Bomb”: social surveys, the popular press and British sexual culture in the 1940s and 1950s’, Journal of British Studies, 50/1 (2011) and ‘The British popular press and venereal disease during the Second World War’, Historical Journal, 48/4 (2005).

Angela Davis (Warwick) – The role of the Jewish community in maternal and child health provision in Palestine under the British Mandate

This paper discusses the role of the Jewish community in providing maternal and child health services for its members in Mandate Palestine. The British Administration sought to achieve the maximum social provision with the minimum expense, leaving to private religious or lay institutions that practice which effectively founded welfare work in the country. It was a deliberate British policy to hand over those relatively few British sanitary institutions, hospitals and nurseries to missions, to charitable institutions or to the growing autonomous and self-sufficient Jewish medical organizations.  I will argue that, in consequence, while in some ways the situation in under the Mandate was similar to other British colonies, the role of the Jewish community in providing for itself also made the case of Palestine unique.

Angela Davis is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick. Her current project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, is a comparative study of Jewish women’s experiences of maternity and infant care in England and Israel. Her wider research has focused on motherhood and childhood in post-war Britain. She is the author of Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England c. 1945-2000 (2012).

Shane Doyle (Leeds) – Birth outcomes in twentieth-century East Africa 

‘Okuzaala Lumbe’ – giving birth is deadly according to a traditional Ganda proverb. Certainly this was often true in the early twentieth century in the Ugandan kingdom of Buganda. The dangerous business of childbirth turned husbands against wives, patrilineage against matrilineage, and elders against their children. Colonial officials and European missionaries, associating reproductive failure with immorality and ignorance, pressed the Ganda to give birth in the clinic, with, at first, decidedly mixed results. This paper will discuss how biomedical interventions evolved rapidly over the course of the colonial period in this region, ultimately resulting in institutional rates of stillbirth, neonatal mortality and maternal mortality falling by 300-700% between 1950 and 1970. The impact of this remarkable transformation on local attitudes to childbirth and biomedicine will be examined.

Shane Doyle was educated at Cambridge and SOAS. Currently Senior Lecturer in African History at the University of Leeds, he was previously a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, and before that Assistant Director of the British Institute in Eastern Africa. His current research on the history of sexuality and demographic change in East Africa has been funded by the AHRC, British Academy and the ESRC, and has been published as Before HIV: Sexuality, Fertility and Mortality in East Africa, 1900-1980 (British Academy and OUP, 2013)

Linda Fairley (De Partu) – Experiences of forty years as a midwife

Working in the NHS for over forty six years, as a nurse and then a midwife, I have seen so many changes. Some changes I welcomed and some changes I just had to accept. My practice seemed to almost go in a full circle as demands and fashions came and went .Equipment and ideas have changed rapidly over the years, but childbirth has not. Listening, observing and feeling are the tools of any Midwife’s practice.

Sarah Fox (Manchester) – The Woman was a Stranger’: childbirth and community in the long eighteenth century

On the 17 December 1766, James Field appeared at the Old Bailey accused of the ‘wilful murder of a newborn child, by casting it into a tub of water’.  The subsequent depositions recorded by the court are particularly rich in detail providing a window onto the childbirth practices of the very poor in eighteenth-century London.   Hidden beyond the practical details of birth are themes of hospitality and community, individuality and privacy.  These were expressed through ritual behaviours and superstitions that survived throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries despite being challenged by the changing face of midwifery and the discipline of obstetrics.   Furthermore, this paper will explore the extent to which James Field’s trial reveals community investment in an impending birth, and the reciprocal role of childbirth in the definition and maintenance of communities during the eighteenth century.

Sarah Fox is an AHRC funded student in her third year of postgraduate study at the University of Manchester with interdisciplinary research interests in social and cultural history and material culture.  Her research, supervised by Professor Hannah Barker and Dr Sasha Handley, examines the experience of childbirth in the eighteenth-century North of England with a particular focus on non-medical practices and beliefs.

William Gould (Leeds) – The Demography of Hindu nationalism: fertility, birth rates and the census

Shortly following the massive electoral victory of the Hindu right-wing party, the BJP in India’s May 2014 General Elections, the new Minister for Health, Harsh Vardhan declared that in fighting against AIDS, Indians should ‘promote Indian culture not condoms’. Underlying Vardhan’s statement (much parodied on social media) was what scholars of South Asia have described as ‘Saffron Demography’ (Jeffrey and Jeffrey, 2005).  The fear of ultimate ‘Hindu decline’, and conversely of Muslim fertility has become according to Datta (1993) a form of ‘common sense’ in India, that stretches between the 1910s and present day. Its genealogy is complex and multifaceted and connects specifically to the All India Census, dating from 1871. This paper explores the ways in which ‘saffron demography’ is historically conditioned by the assumed sexuality and fertility of the Hindu widow, and ‘abduction’ scares, which nevertheless changed at particular moments of state transition. It connects, in particular, what Appadurai has described as the ‘dynamic nominalism’ of colonial fascination with ‘numbers’, to a relatively unexplored moment in the common sense of this demography: – post partition in 1947-9, and the statistical enumeration of abduction of ‘unattached women’/illegitimate children as a new project of the nation-state.

William Gould is Professor of Indian History at the University of Leeds.  His publications include Hindu nationalism and the language of politics in late colonial India (Cambridge, 2004), Bureaucracy, Community and Influence in India: Society and the State, 1930-1960s (London, 2011) and Religion and Conflict in South Asia (Cambridge, 2012). He has just completed a historical documentary on India’s ‘Criminal Tribes’ over independence, with film-maker Dakxin Chhara, entitled Birth 1871.

Kate Gronow and Andrew Murphy (Leeds) – Risk in childbirth

In this paper, we discuss a project involving the University and Thackray Medical Museum this spring. We undertook surveys and interviews to establish how modern women interpreted risk in childbirth, both past and present, both personally and in the confines of a museum setting. The results from our research were analysed to decipher how risk in childbirth could best be presented in museums, with risk, as an abstract concept, being very difficult to display in a way that is meaningful and helpful to all visitors. Our findings were very interesting as they showed the effects that gender, age and whether or not someone had children could have on interpretation of risks in childbirth. In some ways this reinforced stereotypes that we have about attitudes to birth but in other ways were enlightening in showing why people feel the way they do about childbirth, risk and how that should or could be discussed in a museum environment

Karen Harvey (Sheffield) – Personal pain and social conflict: the experience of Mary Toft in 1726

In autumn 1726, a poor woman from Godalming gave birth to rabbits. The case of Mary Toft became a media sensation and a medical wonder. Most historians have focussed on this medical context, examining why and how several doctors – including the King’s own anatomist – thought the hoax was possible. Their explanations focussed on the theory of the maternal imagination. It was this context of medical theory and personnel, historians argue, that drove the affair. In this paper, I will shift the focus to Mary Toft herself and to her social contexts. I will argue that Mary’s experiences suggest new interpretations of how and why the case developed.

Karen Harvey is a cultural historian of eighteenth-century Britain. Her main area of interest is gender and she has worked on the body, erotica, material culture and the home. Her most recent book is The Little Republic: Masculinity & Domestic Authority in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2012). Her next book will be about Mary Toft.

Will Jackson (Leeds) – Mutating babies: child rescue and racial indeterminacy in 1920s Cape Town

In colonial societies – where government depended on the unambiguous classification of human – racial – populations – babies were uniquely problematic. Identity in infancy was plastic; norms and ideologies were irrelevant to the very young; the social context around childbirth contained all sorts of subversive, cross-racial intimacies and encounters. While students of empire have long recognised the political problem of the mixed-race child – and have attended assiduously to its discursive creation – little attention has been paid to the actual social circumstances in which children were conceived, gestated, born and raised. This paper focuses on the early twentieth century – when heightened concerns around childhood coincided with pervasive and powerful colonial ideologies – and on the port city of Cape Town, where increasingly interventionist social control mechanisms failed to produce the kinds of racially coherent subjectivities that imperial progress required. Based on the several thousand surviving case histories of Cape Town’s Society for the Protection of Child Life, it presents birth – at once the most private and the most political of things – as a moment of intensified racial charge. Reconstructing the babyhoods of children subject to the interventions of Cape Town’s ‘Child Life’ shows up race as both mutable and porous. It also opens a window onto the kinds of subaltern settler history that existing historiographies seldom afford.

Will Jackson is Lecturer in Imperial History at the University of Leeds. His research has focused on illness, deviance and cultural production in ‘white African’ settler colonies. His publications include Madness and Marginality: The Lives of Kenya’s White Insane (MUP, 2013) and, with Emily Manktelow, Subverting Empire: Deviance and Disorder in the British World (Palgrave, forthcoming). He is currently working on familial and migrant failure in Southern Africa as part of an AHRC project entitled ‘Going Native: Racial Transgression in the British World, 1880-1939’.

Laura King (Leeds) – The impact of birth on men: becoming a father in Britain, 1950s to the present

Since the 1960s, the numbers of men attending the births of their children has risen rapidly; today estimates suggest over 90 per cent of men witness their children being born. But what impact has this had on men as parents, and how has this changed over time? This paper will examine men’s experience of childbirth and their reflections on it, through oral history interviews and other testimony material. It argues that birth has become understood as transformative in changing men’s relationships with their children, and questions whether it is the birth experience itself or the changing understanding of birth as an event that has been most significant for parenting.

Laura King is a Research Fellow in the School of History, University of Leeds, and a social and cultural historian of family life in modern Britain. She is currently researching a project entitled ‘Men, Masculinity and Maternity in Britain, from the 1950s to the present’, and is publishing a book entitled Family Men: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Britain, c.1914-60, forthcoming with Oxford University Press later this year.

Andrea Major (Leeds) – ‘His Manner of Getting into the World’: Imperialism, Nationalism and the Politics of Maternity in India, 1800-1947.

In 1927 American journalist Katherine Mayo infamously suggested that India’s myriad social and political problems were the direct result of the Hindu male’s ‘manner of getting into the world, and his sex life thereafter’. Child marriage, early maternity and unsanitary childbirth practices had, she claimed, produced a race of men whose hands were ‘too feeble, too fluttering to hold the reigns of government’. Overtly political, Mayo’s pro-imperialist diatribe crystallized and amplified existing debates about the role that Indian (Hindu) reproductive practices had on Indians’ physical, social and political status, directly challenging a prominent nationalist discourse glorifying Hindu motherhood as constitutive of the emergent Indian nation. This paper seeks to place early-twentieth-century debates about Indian reproductive practices in the context of longstanding colonial discourses about the nature of Indian motherhood, exploring how debates about the conditions of childbirth in the twentieth century resonated with wider discourses on both maternal distress and maternal deviance in nineteeth-century India. It will suggest that while the politicisation of Indian maternity in the twentieth century has been extensively studied, insufficient attention has been paid to the complexity of earlier colonial discourses about Indian motherhood, in which Indian women were presented as both the victims and the perpetrators of ‘deviant’ social and cultural practices surrounding maternity, childbirth and infant welfare.

Dr Andrea Major is Associate Professor in British Colonial History at the University of Leeds, with a particular focus on British colonial engagements with Indian social, cultural and gender practices in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She has worked extensively on colonial debates on issues such as sati, child marriage and slavery in India and is currently undertaking Leverhulme funded research on the British Anti-Slavery movement’s attitudes to social and political conditions in East India Company controlled India. Her recent publications include Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772-1843 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012); ‘Mediating Modernity:  Colonial State, Indian Nationalism and the Renegotiation of the ‘Civilising Mission’ in the Indian Child Marriage Debate of 1927-1932’ in M. Mann and C. Watt (eds), Civilising Missions in Colonial and Post-colonial South Asia: From Improvement to Development: Colonialism as Civilising Mission (London: Anthem Press, 2011); Sovereignty and Social Reform in India: British Colonialism and the Campaign Against Sati (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010); and Pious Flames: European Encounters with Sati 1500-1830 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Iona McCleery (Leeds) – Fertility and infant mortality in fifteenth-century royal families: patterns of inbreeding?

The stereotype of royal inbreeding is a well-established theme in the modern media: the marriage of Kate Middleton and Prince William in 2011 led to reports that she would bring much needed new genetic material into the family. Yet the stereotype is not well-researched. Although there has been genetics research on the early-modern Hapsburg family, there is little attempt to explain these patterns. It does seem to be the case that earlier royal families saw increasingly low fertility rates at a time when there began to be far more marriages with cousins and even nieces. However, we should not immediately jump to conclusions: health problems were not necessarily a consequence of inbreeding and they did not go un-noticed by contemporaries. This paper compares the royal families of Portugal, France and England. In Portugal between 1403 and 1498, there were fifteen legitimate royal babies, eight of whom survived beyond adolescence; five went on to have children of their own. In England there were twenty births and in France thirty over roughly the same period. Yet similarly 50-60% of babies did not reach adulthood; a statistic far in excess of what can be determined for the ‘normal’ population. The paper will consider possible explanations such as selective data collection, political strife and personal preferences (e.g. pious abstinence). If intermarriage with nieces and cousins was increasing, it is important to look for contemporary debates about this practice and its consequences, rather than resting on modern retrospective diagnosis. Preliminary conclusions suggest that changing marital patterns may have played a role in the long-term, but that royal birthing and childrearing practices also led to declining fertility and high child mortality.

Iona McCleery has been a lecturer at the University of Leeds since 2007. Previously she was a Wellcome Research Fellow at Durham University. She works on the history of medicine, healing miracles and the history of food, with an emphasis on healthcare in Portugal and its early empire. She has published recently on medical licensing and the writings of King Duarte of Portugal (1433-38), whose nine children will feature in this paper. Forthcoming articles and essays are on famine, travel, miracles and colonial medicine. McCleery runs You Are What You Ate, a Wellcome Trust-funded project that uses historical food to get modern people thinking about their eating habits (

Chris Renwick (York) – Voluntary and Involuntary Parenthood: Population Thinking, Eugenics, and the Welfare State in 1930s Britain

When the Social and Allied Services Report, the foundation stone of the modern welfare state, was first debated by parliament in 1943, its author, William Beveridge, briefly left the public galleries to travel to a meeting of the Eugenics Society. He did so to deliver the prestigious annual Galton Lecture on his chosen subject of family allowances, which his report recommended but many eugenicists opposed. Although such incidents seem curious now, they highlight how reproduction and fertility were central concerns in the mid-twentieth-century debates about social security and the welfare state. Paying particular attention to two organisations, the Population Investigation Committee and the Population Policies Committee, this paper addresses that theme by considering some of the ideas about parenthood that emerged at the intersection of biological and social science in 1930s Britain. Exploring the context of discussions about population decline and the new kinds of research that emerged in response to it, the paper will look at how an influential group of British biologists and social scientists saw parenthood as an evolving historical institution that resided at the point where several social structures intersected. In so doing, the paper will throw further light on how rational reproduction was at the heart of progressive politics and visions for Britain’s future during the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Chris Renwick is a lecturer in modern history at the University of York. He works on the history of the biological and social sciences, in particular their implications for political and social thought, since the mid-nineteenth century. He has published widely on these topics, including British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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