A Legacy of Sacrifice by 19th Century Midwives
From my Journal: This is an article I wrote for an online edition of the Deseret News, published 7 Aug 2011
Being a Labor and Delivery nurse, I found 20th century OB nursing very demanding physically, mentally and emotionally. I wondered why sacrifice came with service. Wasn’t service itself enough?
Family history expanded my very narrow view. My great-grandmother, Henrietta, was one of the midwives who served in the Salt Lake valley from 1882 to 1902.
Henrietta McKay McCloy joined the LDS Church in Scotland. She arrived in Salt Lake in November 1865. Henrietta married my great-grandfather in 1868. Thirteen years later, my great-grandfather left Henrietta with the farm and six children, ages 6 months to 11 years, to feed and educate.
In 1870, Brigham Young encouraged the women in Salt Lake to gain an education in obstetrics to minimize the mortality rate among mothers and infants. The Relief Society helped to fund, by donations, the education of the first three women who went back east to become doctors. One of these women was Romania B. Pratt.
When Dr. Pratt returned to Salt Lake, she opened a practice and started midwifery classes. President Young issued a request to the bishops of the wards that Relief Societies throughout the church call three women from each ward to study hygiene, nursing and midwifery, according to Kate B. Carter’s “Our Pioneer Heritage.”
Henrietta enrolled in a six-month course taught by Sister Pratt in the later part of 1882. After she completed the course, Henrietta was promised that if she would obey the promptings of the Spirit, she would never lose a case. Similar blessings were given to many of the midwives in this era. Henrietta delivered hundreds of babies in the 20 years she practiced and never lost a patient.
The duties of a midwife in the latter end of the 19th century started before labor. In preparation of the birth, the midwife cleaned the delivery room, washed sheets, blankets and clothes. The midwife delivered the baby, cleaned and bathed both mother and baby, and took care of the entire family for another nine or 10 days after delivery. She could make daily visits if the mother and baby were stable, but often the midwife stayed with the family. The going rate for this service was $3, sometimes paid in produce or meat, according to “Mormon Sisters: Women in early Utah,” by Claudia L. Bushman.
Midwives were instructed that “it is more blessed to minister to those who had not the means to help themselves than to wait upon the rich … it should be regarded as missionary service and the work should be done skillfully, cheerfully, willingly, lovingly, and as a service in the Church of Christ,” as stated in “Our Pioneer Heritage.”
Many midwives held leadership positions in the church in addition to this service. They gave of their own clothes, blankets and food storage. They went days without sleep. They traveled to the homes of their patients at great sacrifice. Those who did not have transportation walked three to five miles on foot. In winter, some traveled up to 50 miles in sleds. Several midwives risked their lives to ford streams that overflowed their banks from spring run-off, and then went on to deliver in wet clothes.
Adaline Belnap received broken ribs after being thrown from her buggy. She continued to her patient’s home, delivered the baby, took care of the family and never told the family of her injury.
Maggie Rowley cleaned and washed sheets, turned and delivered the baby, bathed both mom and baby, and made them comfortable, while in labor herself with her 10th baby. Her own baby delivered immediately after returning home.
Artemesia Andersen attended four births in four different towns in a 24-hour period, and got lost in a snowstorm overnight, according to “Our Pioneer Heritage.”
These midwives cared for mothers and babies, and the sick until the end of their lives. Some delivered babies in their eighties. Henrietta continued to care for the sick until she contracted tuberculosis from one of her patients. She passed away Dec. 23, 1902.
I learned a few lessons in my journey through the past. My sacrifices paled in comparison. I also learned to be grateful for the circumstances I have. Lastly, I learned that sacrifice is an essential component of service. That is my heritage and the legacy of the midwives of Deseret.
Thanks to The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum who supplied me with Henrietta’s portrait and the picture of her medical bag.