Although the medical field and publications were dominated by men during the European pre-modern period, Louise Bourgeois made a name for herself as both a medical professional and the author of numerous medical texts. To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting a woman author from our collections!
Louise Bourgeois (also known as Boursier) (1563-1636) was a French midwife. After assisting in the birth of Louis XIII, she was appointed to the French royal court of Henry the Great for 27 years, where she participated in the birth of all six of Marie de Medici’s children. Her achievements and contributions to the field of midwifery are especially noteworthy in a time and society where the medical field was dominated by men. Although this achievement is partly attributed to her connections via her barber-surgeon husband Martin Boursier, who was a student of the renowned Ambroise Paré, it was her own work and efforts that elevated midwifery into more of a science.
Bourgeois’s first foray into midwifery may have been financially motivated, as the income from her husband’s medical practice and the textile and needlework that she sold was not enough to support her family. However, her career as a midwife followed an unusual path. Aspiring midwives usually apprenticed with an established professional when they were older and past their childbearing years. Not only did Bourgeois start training at the younger age of 31, but she also learned midwifery from observing the surgical work of Ambroise Paré instead of apprenticing with another midwife. As a result, the guild of midwives opposed her license application, as they feared her increasing reputation amongst Paré’s circle of surgeons. Yet those same social connections may have also helped with her application, as the judging panel consisted of not only two professional midwives, but also a medical doctor and two barber-surgeons.
The same barber-surgeon training and background also influenced her writings. She was able to publish numerous works on topics relating to midwifery, some of which were among the most popular and influential textbooks of their day. Her book titled Diverse observations on sterility; loss of the ovum after fecundation, fecundity and childbirth; diseases of women and of newborn infants, of which Becker owns a copy, was the first book on obstetrics that was published by a woman; the contents were based on her experience and observation of over two thousand deliveries.
Drawing on the practices of French surgeons Ambroise Paré and Jacques Guillemeau, Bourgeois advocated for the induction of premature labor for contracted pelvises and gave original descriptions of prolapsed umbilical cords. Notably, the work is written in secular French instead of the more academic, high-society Latin, underscoring the practical nature of the work. Furthermore, the work was also translated into Dutch, German and English, illustrating the influence of the book as well as Bourgeois’s own reputation.
References and more readings
Dunn, P. M. “Louise Bourgeois (1563-1636): royal midwife of France.” Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed 2004;89:F185–F187.
“Louise Bourgeois Boursier (1563-1636), Midwife.” Exploring Women in Science and Medicine through the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection.
Perkins, W. (1996). Midwifery and medicine in early modern france: Louise bourgeois. University of Exeter Press.