Among the greatest risks to a woman in childbirth were childbed fever, toxemia and postpartum hemorrhage; the last two of which are still a major cause of maternal deaths worldwide today.
Childbed fever, or puerperal fever, is an infection of the female reproductive organs and was one of the most common causes of death in childbirth prior to the early 20th century. It frequently took the mother's life within days of giving birth and was extremely painful. And it was almost entirely caused by the hygiene practices of the birth attendant - which included midwives and physicians.
It's important to make this distinction, because many times people tend to think of midwives of that time period as uneducated, inept, or practicing witchcraft in an unsanitary, ramshackle house. While there were some that did, there were many who were very capable, some even experiencing fewer deaths than their physician counterparts.
|A Lysol ad from 1937, referencing|
infection control both in hospital births
and those that take place at home.
Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis is often credited with understanding how childbed fever was transmitted: he theorized, correctly, that midwives and physicians were spreading the streptococcus pyogenes bacteria through improper hand washing from patient to patient. He proposed that physicians wash their hands in a chlorine solution prior to delivering a child, an idea that offended fellow doctors. Despite his repeated attempts to educate healthcare workers on proper hygiene, they often ignored his requests and refused to believe they were, in fact, contributing to the problem - even as maternal deaths were decreasing among those who practiced Semmelweis' hand washing guidelines.
When he first introduced the protocols in a Vienna obstetrical clinic in 1847, the rate of childbed fever deaths in the doctors' wards was three times higher than that of the midwives' wards.
Decades before Semmelweis' work, physician Alexander Gordon made similar observations as early as 1790. His ideas were not well-received and he was essentially run out of practice. Later, physician Oliver Wendell Holmes came to the same conclusions, only to be equally rebuffed and ignored.
It literally took decades - roughly half a century - before physicians started admitting that perhaps they were indeed the cause of infection and deaths in so many women. And even then, it wasn't until around the 1930s when cases finally started to become scarce, due in part to better hygiene practices, more sanitary birthing conditions and the introduction of antibiotics and sulfa drugs. During Semmelweis' work in Austrian maternity wards, handwashing alone led to a dramatic lowering of maternal deaths.
It was 1925 when my great-grandmother delivered her last babies, a set of twins, at home. The doctor was called in - who I later discovered had questionable hygiene practices. Even then, after much was known about controlling the spread of infection, obviously some continued to disregard it. In my opinion, it's not enough to say "Women died in childbirth before modern obstetrics. You should be thankful your physician does X, Y, Z to make sure you and your baby is safe." Most of us know that maternal deaths were far more common, but do we understand why? One birth blogger who spent an unusual amount of time criticizing the natural birth movement wrote about 'those headstones in a graveyard of all those mothers and infants who had died because of natural childbirth.' (Paraphrasing a bit here, as it's been a few years ago since I read that. But still, that was the gist of the message.) One thing I have noticed: when discussing maternal deaths, many sources will completely gloss over the cause, as if it was just an unfortunate problem that happened for no reason.
Puerperal fever is still a risk of childbirth today, but in many cases we have different names for it. Although rare, it does still claim the lives of women. No longer known as 'childbed fever,' it is not unusual for women to develop fevers during labor, which are usually treated with imminent delivery, cesarean section (which alone can increase risk of infection) and antibiotics at the first sign of a problem. Chorioamnionitis, an inflammation of the fetal membranes, is caused by a bacterial infection that tends to occur in longer labors. Among the risk factors are repeated vaginal exams and internal fetal monitoring.
It is true that in many ways, modern obstetrics has saved countless lives of both mothers and babies. But you have to have some perspective on the reasons why many women died - reasons that were primarily iatrogenic in nature - death brought about by the very people who were supposed to save them.
Childbirth in Early America - Digital History
British maternal mortality in the 19th and 20th centuries - National Center for Biotechnology Information
The Attempt to Understand Puerperal Fever in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries: The Influence of Inflammation Theory: National Center for Biotechnology Information