Finger Pointing Midwife Sign
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Midwifery in Wisconsin 1850 - 1905 Wisconsin


Who were the practitioners delivering babies in Wisconsin during the period of 1850 to 1905? Over half of births were attended by midwives. A midwife can be defined as a woman who assists other women in childbirth; a female practitioner of the obstetric art. Most midwives in Wisconsin were middle-aged mothers who primarily practiced when they still had children at home themselves. Immigrant women dominated the practice of midwifery in Wisconsin. Midwifery was practiced out of the home, as one of women's many traditional domestic skills. It appears unlikely that the women ever sought a professional status for their work, but rather more closely resembled the mutual aid that farm women provided for one another than it did an organized, income producing activity. Most rural midwives were neighbor women who attended only a few cases. They assisted in the birth of their relatives and neighbors. There were a few trained rural midwives, but they did not have large practices. They would expect to receive payment for their work, but probably still only attended one or two cases a month and limited their practice to nearby farms or villages. Regardless of their level of activity or training, midwives practiced among the women of their own ethnic group.

Data on midwives from the Milwaukee Health Department show that three types of midwives practiced in the state. They were: neighbor-woman midwives, usually native-born women who learned their technique from their own birth experiences and assisting at the deliveries of relatives and a few close friends; apprentice-trained midwives, typically native-born, who learned their craft from other, older midwives or from physicians; and school-educated midwives, overwhelmingly first or second generation immigrants, instructed in schools for midwives. During the period from 1870-1920, there were approximately 900 women identified as practicing midwives. The trend was toward the school-trained midwives.

 

"She never said no!"

This statement comes from an interview conducted by Jan Coombs of the Wisconsin State Historical Society with Henry E. Banach of Marshfield, Wisconsin on March 30, 1984. Banach's mother, Eva Banach, was a midwife in Portage County in the late nineteenth century. In 1910, she was licensed by the State of Wisconsin to practice midwifery. She delivered an average of 35 babies per year and had no formal education or midwifery training. Eva moved to Wisconsin with her family from Poland. She met and married her husband after her arrival in Wisconsin. They had nine or ten children.

Her son recalls that she was very devoted to her work as a midwife and never said no to a woman in labor no matter what was going on in her own family. He remembers that she was frequently called out at night in the middle of thunderstorms. She gave up important family events and celebrations to go to the aid of her neighbors. If it was a difficult birth, Eva sometimes had to stay as long as two days with the laboring mother. Ordinarily she stayed for the delivery and then came home when she was sure the mother was doing well.

Pioneer Birth Scene
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Only once was a doctor called in by a woman's family to assist in one of her deliveries. Her son, Henry, did not know the circumstances. He also recalls that she lost one baby at birth in the many years of her practice. She was very upset and told her family that the child's parents did not do what she instructed them to do.

The equipment she brought to a delivery consisted simply of white towels. Her son does not remember her having any sort of bag with instruments. (Most probably, she did not use any instruments in her deliveries.) Eva kept a record of the babies she delivered and signed the official birth records. She used to discuss her work with her oldest daughter, but not surprisingly, did not share much with her sons.

She practiced for many years. Her son remembers that she was one of the few women he knew at the time who worked outside of their home. She was a professional for her time and her family was proud of her but as she got older they wanted her to give up her profession. Their opinion had no effect on Eva and she continued with her work. She felt it was her duty to help others. Beyond her work as a midwife, she also helped to care for the sick among her neighbors. She was not paid in cash for her services but in goods, such as food. Her practice was limited to women of her own ethnicity. However, the area at that time was almost exclusively Polish.

She had no formal education but was literate in both Polish and English. She could read and write, Polish and English and speak German.

Note: In 1909, an amendment to the State Medical Practice Act of Wisconsin mandated that midwives practicing in the state of Wisconsin apply for licenses. There were a number of criteria that a midwife had to meet to be granted a certificate. However, any midwife already in practice received a license regardless of her preparation to be a midwife. This a copy of Eva Banach's license application and picture.

 

For Further Reading:

What is midwifery: history. Motherstuff, 1999. Accessed Mar 28 2000Web site. Available from www.motherstuff.com/html/2midwifery-history.html.

Borst, Charlotte. Catching babies: the professionalization of childbirth, 1870-1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Borst, Charlotte G. "Wisconsin's midwives as working women: Immigrant midwives and the limist of a traditional occupation, 1870-1920." Journal of Ethnic History 8, no. 2 (1989): 24-59.

Coombs, Jan. Public health and welfare interviews. sound recording. Marshfield, WI: State Historical Society, 1984. Three-tape recorded interviews conducted by Jan Coombs with Marshfield, Wisconsin residents concerning public health and welfare in central Wisconsin, 1880-1900. Interviewed are Henry Banach, son of Eva Banach, a midwife in Portage County who served Polish immigrants especially.

Gerrard, Mary. "Journal, 1878-1912." . La Crosse, WI.

Hill, Edwin, and Linda Sondreal. "La Crosse healers: a checklist of physicians, midwives, dentists, chiropractors, and miscellaneous practitioners in the city of La Crosse, Wisconsin from the 1840s to the 1980s." . La Crosse, WI: University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, 1985.

Leavitt, Judith Walzer. Brought to bed: Childbearing in America, 1750 to 1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

PBS. A midwife's tale. The American Experience, 1998. Accessed Feb 27 2000Web site. Available from www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/midwife/about.html.

Price County (Wisconsin). Register of Deeds. "Midwives' and physicians' reports, 1888-1903." . Price County, WI.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A midwife's tale: Vintage, 1991.

Wisconsin, State Board of Medical Examiners. Applications for midwifery licenses, 1909-1934. Madison, WI: State Historical Society Archives. Applications for licenses to practice midwifery showing name, address, age, education, number of cases attended, examination recrod, and physical description. Many applications have photos attached.





The People's Voices:
Immigrants | American Indians | Midwifery in Wisconsin | Frances Willard | Voices from Wisconsin Women | African Americans

This page was originally created by Edith Hixon for The Wisconsin Mosaic as part of LIS 839: Special Collections: In the Digital Environment, Spring 2000.

Last update: April 17, 2000.