“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.

London flashmob for safety in childbirth

Don't try this at home.

From the producers (2008):

If you think this is dangerous, try giving birth in poor countries without a midwife, hospital or medicine. This flashmob is one of a series happening in Paris, Berlin, Utrecht and across Canada to highlight the scandal that millions of women in poor countries and around the world aren't getting the healthcare they need for a safe and healthy pregnancy.

(And just to put your minds a rest - the dancing expectant mums in this video aren't pregnant, they were professional dancers wearing pregnancy suits!)

Queen Elizabeth adds a birthday

Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 85th birthday today with a commemoration that mingled an important tradition of the Easter season in Great Britain with the real birthday of the oldest British monarch ever to occupy the throne.

Queen Elizabeth II on her 85th birthday
Queen Elizabeth II

Elizabeth was born on April 21, 1926, at the London home of her maternal grandfather, the fourteenth Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne.

Today, with just a week and a day to go until the wedding of the queen’s grandson Prince William to Catherine Middleton, the monarch attended Maundy Thursday service at Westminster Abbey on her birthday.

She gave “Maundy money,” specially minted silver coins, to 85 men and 85 women, the number representing the years of her life. The recipients were retirees chosen for their “tireless work for the Church and their communities,” according to an article in The Telegraph.

The custom, which draws from the explicit example of humility and service Jesus gave his apostles by washing their feet at the Last Supper, is hundreds of years old in England. It replaced an earlier practice in which the king would wash the feet of the poor on Maundy, or Holy, Thursday.

However, British monarchs had drifted away from distributing Maundy money personally, leaving the task to the clergy, until George V, Elizabeth’s grandfather, revived the tradition in 1932, according to an article that year in Time magazine.

Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne when she was 25, and has ruled for 59 years. In 2007, she passed “mad” King George III, who died in 1820 at the age of 82, to become the oldest British monarch. Only Queen Victoria has had a longer reign.

The queen celebrates her birthday officially in June.

Chris Jackson / Getty Images

Childbed fever

"There is not a corner in Britain where this formidable disease has not made many mourners,”  John Mackintosh, an Edinburgh, Scotland "man-midwife" wrote of puerperal or "childbed" fever in the 1820s.

This bacterial disease of the upper genital tract typically began within the first three days after childbirth with abdominal pain, fever and respiratory difficulty, and very often ended with the new mother's death.

Medical writers had been remarking on childbed fever at least since Hippocrates, but in the early modern era, it began to attract attention for a number of reasons. For one, it began to appear in epidemics, with very high mortality rates. For another, accounts of outbreaks were written about and published. And at least some of the new, scientific man-midwives themselves were spreading the disease by going straight from autopsies to the birth chambers of homes and especially of hospitals, without cleaning up at all in between.

There were terrible epidemics of puerperal fever in the German city of Leipzig  in 1652 and 1665, at the Hôtel Dieu in Paris, France, in 1745 and 1746, and at the British Lying-In Hospital in London, England, in 1760. It is possible that these were the first ever epidemics of childbed fever.