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Women's History Month: Female Authors of Obstetric Texts

It is impossible for anyone who has done reading in the history of medicine to escape the fact that it is a history dominated by the writings and discoveries of men.  It is such a male-dominated discipline that even aspects of female anatomy are assigned the names of the male doctors who first described them – just think of the Fallopian tubes, which are named after Gabriele Falloppio, a 16th century Italian anatomist who taught at the University of Padua.  But although the overwhelming majority of their names are now lost to us, women still participated in the early modern medical world.  In honor of Women’s History Month, which is celebrated in March, we’ll look at some of our historical texts authored by women.

While women were prohibited from studying at the major universities, they traditionally held sway in one area of medical practice: obstetrics.  Because pregnancy and childbirth belonged to the female sphere of responsibility, and the birthing room was the province of women, even male authorities were sometimes willing to defer to the experience and opinions of female midwives.  For example, in his famous work De humani corporis fabrica, Andreas Vesalius mentions that one of the female cadavers he dissected belonged to a woman who claimed to pregnant.  The Chief of Police ordered her to be examined by the city’s midwives in order to determine whether this was true or not, telling us that when it came to matters of pregnancy, women were acknowledged as the experts.1

Yet throughout the early modern period, male doctors' access to advanced training in anatomy, medicine, and theory allowed them to become increasingly involved in the domain of midwifery.  In 16th century Zurich, Jakob Rueff was charged with overseeing the instruction of the city’s midwives; in the 17th century Frederick Ruysch had similar responsibilities in Amsterdam.  It is not surprising that the first obstetric text printed with movable type was written by a man - Eucharius Rösslin’s Der Rosengarten in 1513 – or that many of the most famous early modern midwifery texts were also written by men: Rueff’s De conceptu et generatione hominis (1554), François Mauriceau’s Traité des Maladies des Femmes Grosses et Accouchées (1668), and Hendrik van Deventer’s Nieuw Ligt (1701).  This trend reached its apotheosis in the late 18th century with the publication of William Smellie’s Sett of Anatomical Tables (1749) and William Hunter’s Anatomia uteri umani gravidi (1774).

There are comparatively few texts written by female practitioners, or at least texts that went through the complete publication process.  Of these, some of the most well-known are Observations diverses sur la sterilité, published by Louise Bourgeois in 1609, Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book (1671), which was the first English book on midwifery published by a woman; and Justine Siegemund’s Chur-Brandenburgische Hof-Wehemutter (1690).  The Becker Library does not hold a copy of Jane Sharp’s work, but is fortunate to have early editions of both Bourgeois and Sigemund’s texts.

Louise Bourgeois2

 

Louise Bourgeois (1653-1636) was one of the most celebrated midwives in early modern France.  She was born just outside of Paris in 1563, and in 1584 married Martin Boursier, a barber-surgeon who allegedly studied under Ambroise Paré.  In 1589, military conflict between Henry of Navarre and the Catholic League forced her to seek safety within the walls of Paris.  She began her career as a midwife after arriving in the city, and in 1598 she passed the official licensing examination that was administered by a physician, two surgeons, and two midwives.

Her success paved the way for her becoming the royal midwife in 1601.  Marie de Médicis, who had married Henry of Navarre to become Queen of France, did not want Madame Dupuis, the established royal midwife, to attend her during her pregnancy.  Madame Dupuis had attended at the births of Henry’s mistress, and this was apparently enough for her to earn the queen’s displeasure.  One of Louise’s noble clients arranged for Marie and Bourgeois to cross paths, and Marie was pleased enough by what she saw that Bourgeois attended the births of all the royal children. 

The end of Bourgeois’ career was marked by controversy.  When the Duchess D’Orleans died of puerperal peritonitis in 1627 with Bourgeois attending her, Bourgeois was promptly attacked by the medical establishment.  In response she wrote her own Apologie, in which she defended herself by pointing to her many years’ experience and the positive reception of her published works.

For publish she did – Bourgeois was not only notable for her service to the royal family; she was notable for being the first French woman to publish an obstetrical treaty.  The Observations diverses sur la sterilité Diverse Observations on Sterility – first appeared in 1609 and went through many subsequent editions, as well as translations into German, Dutch, and English. 

Justine Siegemund3

Justine Siegemund (1636-1705) was born into a Lutheran pastor’s family in Rohnstock, Silesia, an area that although ethnically German is now part of Poland.  Like Louise Bourgeois, she was a trailblazer – when she published the Hof-WehemutterThe Court Midwife – in 1690, she became the first German woman to publish a medical text.

Unlike most midwives, Siegemund never bore any children herself.  She did, however, claim that less than ideal treatment at the hands of midwives who thought she was pregnant initially inspired her to read obstetric texts and enter the profession.  She was evidently quite successful at teaching herself, for in 1670 she became the town midwife of Liegnitz, from 1672 to 1680 she served in the court of Duchess Luise von Anhalt-Dessau, and finally, in 1683, she became the court midwife of Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg. 

Siegemund began preparing her book in 1689.  During a trip to Holland she commissioned 37 copperplate engravings that illustrated various abnormal positions of the fetus, which were stylistically similar to those found in many contemporary obstetric texts, as well as 2 engravings of the female anatomy that were derived from the work of the leading Dutch anatomists Govard Bidloo and Regnier de Graaf.  In addition to acquiring illustrations for her work, she acquired the approval of appropriate authorities.  Her manuscript was approved by the medical faculty at Frankfurt on the Oder in 1689, and the Brandenburg chaplains also confirmed the text’s orthodoxy.  Both of these “seals of approval” from medical and religious authorities were reprinted in every edition of her book.

Siegemund acquired printing privileges from both the Holy Roman Emperor and the Elector of Saxony, and had the work printed by the Brandenburg court printer at her own expense.  The work was framed as a dialogue between two midwives, one a novice and one experienced, and was published in the vernacular German rather than academic Latin.  The work was popular enough to go through seven editions.

When Siegemund died in 1705, she is said to have delivered 6,199 infants.  She was a notable enough figure for her funeral oration to appear in print.

 

Chances are many other midwives wrote childbearing advice based on their experiences in the birthing room, and shared that knowledge with one another.  What made Louise Bourgeois and Justine Siegemund unique was that they published their texts for wide distribution.  The fact that both of their books warranted multiple editions tells us that medical texts authored by women did have an audience, and women could command respect through print.  While it’s unfortunate that we don’t have more published medical works by female authors, we are proud to acknowledge the work of these two remarkable women.

 

1Andreas Vesalius.  On the Fabric of the Human Body.  Translated by William Frank Richardson.  Vol. 4.  Novato, California: Normal Publishing, 2007.  189.

2 Biographical information on Louise Bourgeois is taken from the following article: PM Dunn.  "Louise Bourgeois (1563-1636): royal midwife of France."  Archives of Disease in Childhood.  Fetal and Neonatal Edition.  2004.  Vol. 89.  F185-F187.

3Biographical information on Justine Siegemund is taken from Lynne Tatlock's introduction to her English translation of The Court Midwife.  Justine Siegemund.  The Court Midwife.  Edited and translated by Lynne Tatlock.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Tatlock is the Hortense and Tobias Lewin Distinguished Professor in the Humanities in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. 

 

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