“Call the Midwife”

Birth Story could hardly ignore the debut of a new PBS series called Call the Midwife, an import from England. I watched the first episode last night, and I expect I'll be a regular viewer.

I didn't love the first episode of Call the Midwife, though. I thought it romanticized birth on the low end of the social order in London in 1957, even though it begins with two women fighting on a street in the tough East End.

This episode of "Call the Midwife" features a woman who had 25 children, and that made me wonder what the record is for offspring from one woman.

Well, here it is — 69.

The wife of Feodor Vassilyev (1707–c.1782), a peasant from Shuya, Russia (they didn't even keep track of her name!) had 27 "confinements," in which she gave birth to 16 pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets and four sets of quadruplets.

Investigations in blood

William Harvey's monumental achievement in discovering the circulatory system inspired two of his friends to dabble in the study of blood — Christopher Wren, the architect who designed St. Paul's Cathedral and other remarkable London buildings (Wren was an astronomer before he turned to architecture), and Robert Boyle, a pioneer in modern chemistry.

The men were all members of the Experimental Philosophy Club in Oxford, England, and admirers of the work of Francis Bacon, who advocated first-hand investigations into the natural world, rather than accepting long-held orthodoxies.

At the time, it was thought that the blood was impervious to anything that came from the outside world. Using a prototypical syringe made of a quill and a bladder, Wren and Boyle injected dogs with opium and other drugs, and showed that the dogs were affected — that they reacted to the opium, for example, by falling asleep.

These experiments inflamed the scientific community, and no end of creatures were injected with every kind of fluid, from urine to milk, sometimes with fatal results.

Richard Lower, an Oxford-trained doctor and protege of Wren and Boyle's, in 1665 decided to see what happened when he injected a dog with blood from another dog, connecting the two vein-to-vein. The experiment failed. The blood just pooled up in the connecting tube, Douglas Starr relates in his book, Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce.

Then, Lower tried tapping an artery in the donor dog, and this time the experiment worked. The stronger pressure from the arterial blood made for a successful transfusion, leading Lower to reason that "one Animal may live with the blood of another," Starr writes. Lower's experiments set off a frenzy for transfusions in England and, soon, in France.

Jean-Baptiste Denis, one of the French King Louis XIV's doctors, thought he might cure violent people of their rages by transfusing them with the blood of gentle animals like calves and sheep. At the time, people believed that blood contained a sterotypical set of characteristics of the creature that possessed it. For a while, it looked like Denis had had a stroke of genius, as one violent character in particular seemed for awhile utterly transformed.

Lower was furious, accusing Denis of stealing his work. Meanwhile, some human transfusion subjects began to die (blood being much more complicated than these men understood), including some high-profile patients of Denis. The French Parliament banned transfusions in 1670, followed by the British Parliament and eventually the pope.

That was the end of transfusions in Europe until the early 19th century.

Still, Starr writes, these early researchers "cracked the wall of humoral medicine, showing that the body was ruled not by vague humors but by chemicals, vessels and pumps."

The first woman doctor, U.S. division

As the first woman doctor in the United States, Elizabeth Blackwell had the dubious honor of showing the way for women to qualify for and enter a profession in which, at the time, they were pointedly unwelcome.

Blackwell endured repeated rejections on her way into medical school, where she was shunned by the male students and shut out of clinical opportunities by the teachers. After she finished medical school, when no one would hire her, she founded her own hospital and made her own opportunities.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell

Blackwell was born in England; her father was a wealthy Quaker and sugar refiner whose business eventually fell on hard times. The large family moved to the United States when Elizabeth was 11 and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Blackwell''s father died when she was a teenager and the family opened a small private school, where Elizabeth began teaching.

When she decided she wanted to be a doctor, she was turned away from 29 medical schools before being accepted by the Geneva Medical School in Geneva, N.Y. In spite of the hostility she encountered there, she graduated at the top of her class in 1849, with plans to become a surgeon.

Blackwell traveled to Paris to take a course in midwifery, where she contracted an infection that cost her the sight in one eye. That put an end to her hopes of becoming a surgeon. Back in the United States, Blackwell found she couldn't get work in a hospital, so she went into private practice.

In 1853, along with her sister Emily, and Marie Zakrzewska, two other early female doctors, Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, now New York Downtown Hospital. During the Civil War, Blackwell trained nurses to treat soldiers injured on the battlefield.

The Blackwell sisters also founded the Women's Medical College of New York in 1869, but within a few years, Elizabeth went back to England. She was a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women for the rest of her working life. Blackwell died at the age of 89, in 1910.

The death of an uncommon woman

Mary Wollstonecraft, the earliest feminist writer in English, died in childbirth in London in 1797. At a time when women were bound to the home and dependent on the men in their lives, Wollstonecraft was a professional writer who had already had one child out of wedlock, and had only recently married her lover, the writer William Godwin.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft

The birth began with a midwife of Mary’s choosing, but when the placenta would not come out, a male physician was called in and removed it surgically.  Wollstonecraft died 11 days later, at the age of 38, of puerperal fever, a wound infection.

At the beginning of the 19th century, women found their public voice.  Wollstonecraft didn’t have an easy life, but the speed with which others followed in her footsteps reflects seismic changes.  Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibilty, was published in 1811; born in 1775, Austen was a well educated woman.

Mary Wollstonecraft not only supported herself with her writing, but she started women on the path to speaking for themselves. On the day she died, Godwin wrote, “There does not exist her equal in the world.”

The daughter Wollstonecraft bore that day grew up to marry the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and to write a seminal Gothic novel, Frankenstein, as Mary Shelley.

A “monstrous” birth

Having a baby with a birth defect could get you killed in colonial America, and attending such a birth as a midwife was also perilous.

Anne Hutchinson, the subject of the previous post, was already in serious trouble in Puritan Boston for her unorthodox ideas when she was summoned along with another midwife, Jane Hawkins, to the childbed of her friend, Mary Dyer, who had remained loyal to Anne. On that day in October of 1637, Mary bore a deformed, stillborn baby girl.

The birth of a "monster," as such a child was called in colonial America, was seen as a sign of God's disfavor, at the very least. The charge that the mother and her attendants had been consorting with the devil was always possible, and the penalty for witchcraft could be death.

Anne asked her old minister for help -- John Cotton, who had sided with the religious authorities against her. Summoning some of his old friendship for her, he advised the secret burial of the dead infant.

However, in March of 1638, when Anne was excommunicated and sent from the congregation, Mary got up and followed her. Someone at the emotional scene, perhaps a fourth woman who had been present at the birth, cried out that Mary had borne a monster. Governor John Winthrop's interest was piqued.

Winthrop interrogated Cotton, who confessed his role in covering up the birth. Winthrop had the child exhumed.

In his journal, the governor reported that the dead infant had, among other features, "four horns, hard and sharp," two mouths, and three claws per foot where her toes should have been.

The birth was, Winthrop declared, evidence of  "the Lord declaring his detestation of their monstrous errors." By this time, however, Anne and her followers, including the Dyers, were safe in Rhode Island.

In 1660, long after Anne's death, Mary Dyer was hanged on Boston Common for the crime of having become a Quaker. She had come back from Rhode Island knowing she would likely be executed, to strike a blow for religious freedom.