The History of Midwives & Childbirth

Midwives have been taking care of women as long as human beings have been on the planet.

The first midwives to be mentioned in the literature are in the Bible in the book of Genesis: "And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said to her, Fear not…". Just as the name midwife literally means, "with woman", midwives have been helping women bring new life into the world throughout the ages.

The history of midwives in the United States is first documented with the arrival of colonists in the New World. Of course, Native American families relied on midwives but this history is not well documented. Midwives were a vital part of colonial community life and therefore were well respected and received housing, land, food and a salary as payment for their services. Midwives in colonial times also contributed by caring for the sick and the dying, had vast knowledge about herbal therapies, and also cared for animals. Pioneer women crossing the plains in covered wagons were cared for by midwives as they gave birth and settled the Western part of the country. Mormon history documents the honorable and heroic functioning of midwives during the journey from Illinois to Utah in 1846-1847. Before the 1900's midwives were very popular and highly regarded by women and their families. Of course prior to 1900 more than 95% of babies were born at home with midwives including the likes of Thomas Edison and George Washington. In the early 1900's midwives faced a highly competitive atmosphere as male physicians sought to replace female midwives to increase their business interests. It did not help that many of the practicing midwives at the time were poorly educated, not organized as a group or union, and held low social status as women which made it difficult to compete and survive in the marketplace. Despite, a tremendous effort by the medical community to wipe out the practice of midwifery, many small community or " granny" midwives continued to practice and provide needed care to women in rural and poorer areas of the country throughout the 1900's. 

As it became clear that physicians alone could not handle all of women's healthcare and childbirth needs states began to recognize the legal practice of midwifery and provide licensure, regulations and training programs. Since the early 1900's the profession of midwifery has grown tremendously and many types of midwives now serve and support women, some of which have different educational backgrounds and training. Midwives care for women in hospitals, homes, and birth centers around the country and world and remain committed to providing safe, satisfying, and personalized care. Nearly 10% of all babies are born to midwives in this country today and that number is growing. On Nov. 1, 2011 was the 246th year anniversary of the first formal training school for midwives , Shippen Medical School, which later became part of the University of Pennsylvania. In 1765, Dr. William Shippen opened the first formal training for midwives at what is now the University of Pennsylvania . Midwives' beliefs that childbirth is normal and inherently within the domain of female competence may have prevented women from seeking formal training, especially from men. Few women were literate, many could not afford schools, and the Puritan philosophy did not encourage education for women.