Women and medicine: midwives in 18th century medical structure

by sandsieve on October 26, 2017 - 10:27am

Aristotle's masterpiece, “a manual of sex and pregnancy, first saw the light of day about 1680” (“exclassic”). It is written by an unknown author who used Aristotle as a pseudonym. The copy of the book (which is 24mo in size) in the Osler Library is the early American reproduction of the 1710 London edition, printed for the Company of Flying Stationers in 1793, New York (Gaba). The book is written in English and the font is small. "The book discussed matters of anatomy, sexual intercourse and childbirth and examined questions concerning fertility, the sex of the fetus and what to do during pregnancy" (Gaba). “The acknowledgment of women’s sexual pleasure and concern about women’s power of mind” is discussed in the book (Schuetze). The book also discussed the influence of food on sex and childbirth. According to this book, though women can participate in medical practice in the 18th century, they are not formally participating in the elite level and are not important.

According to Spary, in the 18th century, "only some medical practitioners had access to learned and print culture"(84). The trained and licensed medical practitioners were in a small number at that time. Also, "women were fomally excluded from most medical training and medical practice throughout the eighteen century"(Spary 86). The structure of the health and medicine field consists 3 trained groups: physicians, surgeons and apothecaries (Spary 84). Physicians were considered to be the most important and the wealthiest. They also had a higher social rank due to the university training they obtained. Apothecaries were considered as pharmacists and surgeons were considered as anatomical and physiological experts according to their fields of knowledge. Besides the licensed groups of healers, there are many different groups such as tooth-pullers, herbalists and astrologers participating in medical practice (Spary 85). Some women also take part in medicine-related jobs, such as midwives. However, in the medical hierarchy of the 18th century, midwives were ranking well below the apothecaries who had a lowest rank in the three licensed medical practitioner (Olsen 49). Midwives were barred from the university system. “Though [they] were approved by the churches as respectable women, yet they were routinely derided by medical authorities for their supposed ignorance and superstition”(Olsen 49). Evidently, in 18th century, though women did take part in medical practice, they are not working as important role according to the medical authorities. They were formally excluded for the medicine practitioners and had a lower rank in medical hierarchy.

Considered as ignorant, how can midwives in the 18th century get proper knowledge to do their job? According to Angela Davis, “Women became midwives through an informal apprenticeship by attending labors, particularly in the company of another midwife”(Davis). Besides apprenticeship, some literate women could also obtain knowledge through books. Aristotle’s Masterpiece is one of the books midwives can refer to. However, though the book explains basic anatomy and process of childbirth, it is still not a formal reference book for the licensed medicine practitioners. The book is written in English which is a vernacular language and is not often used in books for higher-ranked elites. Secondly, the question being discussed in the book is less academic-related, which is, the content is more related to the daily lives of the lower-ranked people. For example, the author discussed the influence of humour:

Why does the shining of the moon hurt the head?

Because it moves the humours of the brain, and cannot afterwards resolve them.    (Aristotle 38)

From the tone of the writing and the reasoning of the question, it is evident that the book is for the normal people, not the elite healers. Furthermore, the book discussed the influence of mind power and daily food, which is not for spreading the common belief in medicine to the elite healers but to the normal people, so that the midwives (especially the literate ones) could learn about medical knowledge through this book. Last but not least, the size of the book is small, which makes it easier to be carried in a pocket and more fits the reading habits of the normal people. From the content and design of the book, midwives, as the main group of the readers of this book, are considered as normal people.

To conclude, women in 18th century could participate in medical practice. However, they are formally excluded from the structure and had a low rank in the medical hierarchy. Also, even though there were books such as Aristotle’s Masterpiece to introduce basic anatomy knowledge to the midwives, women were still considered not as important as the formally licensed physicians, surgeons and apothecaries. Though women could be licensed by the church and work as midwives and had access to medical knowledge, they were still excluded from the medicine practitioners.



Works cited

Aristotle (pseudonym). Aristotle’s Masterpiece or, Every Woman’s Book! Displaying all    the Secrets of Nature, as exhibited in the creation of Man!. early American edition, Company of Flying Stationers, 1793, New York, pp 38.

Davis, Angela. “Drunken midwives and snooty surgeons: a short history of giving birth.” The Conversation, 19 July 2013,             www.theconversation.com/drunken-midwives-and-snooty-surgeons-a-short-his....

Exclassic. “The master piece, and other works of “Aristotle, The Famous Philosopher”.” Aristotle’s Masterpiece -- Introduction,                     www.exclassics.com/arist/ariintro.htm. Accessed 25 Oct. 2017.

Gaba, Bob. “Early Sex Manual and Midwifery Guide.” Handout. Osler Library. Montreal, Quebec.

Olsen, Kirstin. Daily Life in 18th-Century England, 2nd ed., Greenwood Press, 1999. Google Books, https://books.google.ca/books?id=o_hwrAoqxmQC&lpg=PP1&dq=Daily%20Life%20....

Schuetze, Sarah. “Early America’s Guide to Sex: Aristotle’s Masterpiece.” Common-Place, 2017, www.common-place.org/book/vol-17-no-3-schuetze/.

Spary, E.C. “Health and Medicine in the Enlightenment.” 345-101-MQ: Early Modern Knowledge, edited by Sarah Brand, Eastman Systems inc., 2017, pp 82-99.

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