Warning message

This content is filtered. APPPAH membership is required for full access to journal articles.
-A +A
Publication Date: 
October, 1990
Page Count: 
Starting Page: 

This article provides an historical overview of the history of midwives in the United States from the seventeenth century to the present. Brief background information on the period prior to 1600 is included. The article shows how a profession that was traditionally considered to be "women's business" came to be dominated by a predominately male medical establishment. Special attention is given to the early twentieth-century "midwife debate." The origins of nurse-midwifery and the major factors which have contributed to the recent midwidfery renaissance are also considered.


Over the last two decades, there has been an outpouring of published material on the history of midwives in the United States. The references cited in this article provide examples of the major works which have appeared. For a detailed discussion of the historiography of American midwifery see, Judy Barrett Litoff. (1990). "Midwives and History." In Rima D. Apple (Ed.). The History of Women, Health, and Medicine in America: An Encyclopedic Handbook. New York: Garland Publishing.

Abbott, Grace. (1915). The Midwife in Chicago. American Journal of Sociology 20, 684-699.

An Appeal to the Medical Society of Rhode-Island in Behalf of Woman to be Restored to her Natural Right as "Midwife" and Elevated by Education to be the Physician of her Own Sex. (1851).

Antler, Joyce & Fox, Daniel M. (1976). The Movement Toward a Safe Maternity: Physician Accountability in New York City, 1915-1940. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 50, 569-595.

Arms, Suzanne. (1975). Immaculate Deception: A New Look at Women and Childbirth in America, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Baker, S. Josephine. (1927). Maternal Mortality in the United States. Journal of the American Medical Association 89, 2016-2017.

Boston Women's Health Collective. (1971). Our Bodies Ourselves: A Book By and For Women. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Bradbury, Dorothy E. (1962). Five Decades of Action for Children: A History of the Children's Bureau. Washington, DC: Children's Bureau Publication No. 358.

Brickman, Jane Pacht. (1983). Public Health, Midwives, and Nurses, 1880-1930. In Ellen Condliffe (Ed.). Nursing History: New Perspectives, New Possibilities. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Costill, Henry B. (1926). Midwifery Supervision Succeeds in New Jersey. Nation's Health 8, 255-257.

Darlington, Thomas. (1911). The Present Status of the Midwife. American Journal of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women and Children 63, 870-884.

Dart, Helen M. (1921). Maternity and Child Care in Selected Rural Areas of Mississippi Washington, DC: Children's Bureau Publication No. 88.

Declercq, Eugene. (1985). The Nature and Style of Practice of Immigrant Midwives in Early Twentieth Century Massachusetts. Journal of Social History 19, 113-129.

Declercq, Eugene & Lacroix, Richard. (1985). The Immigrant Midwives of Lawrence: The Conflict Between Law and Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Massachusetts. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 59, 232-246.

Devitt, Neal. (1979). The Statistical case for the Elimination of the Midwife. Women and Health 4, 81-96, 169-186.

DeVries, Raymond G. (1980). The Alternative Birth Center: Option or Cooptation? Women & Health 5, 47-60.

Dick-Read, Grantly. (1944). Childbirth Without Fear: The Principles of Natural Childbirth. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Donegan, Jane B. (1978). Women & Men Midwives: Medicine, Morality, and Misogyny in Early America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Dye, Nancy Schrom. (1983). Mary Breckinridge, the Frontier Nursing Service, and the Introduction of Nurse-Midwifery in the United States. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 57, 483-507.

Eakins, Pamela S. (1983). The Rise of the Free Standing Birth Center: Principles and Practice. Women & Health 9, 49-64.

Ernst, Eunice M. & Gordon, Karen A. (1979). 53 Years of Home Birth Experience at the Frontier Nursing Service-1925-1978. In David Stewart and Lee Stewart (Eds.). Compulsory Hospitalization: Freedom of Choice in Childbirth. Marble Hill, MO: NAPSAC Reproductions.

Goodell, William. (1876). When and Why were Male Physicians Employed as Accoucheurs? American Journal of Obstetrics and the Diseases of Women and Children 9, 381-390.

Holmes, Linda Janet. (1984). Alabama Granny Midwife. The Journal of the Medical Society of New Jersey 81, 389-390.

Holmes, Linda Janet. (1985). African American Midwives in the South. In Pamela Eakins (Ed.). The American Way of Birth. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Hooker, Ransom S. (1933). Maternal Mortality in New York City: A Study of All Puerperal Deaths, 1930-1932. New York: The Commonwealth Fund.

Karmel, Marjorie. (1959). Thank You, Dr. Lamaze: A Mother's Experience of Painless Childbirth. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Kobrin, Frances E. (1966). The American Midwife Controversy: A Crisis of Professionalization. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 40, 350-363.

Leavitt, Judith Walzer. (1983). 'Science' Enters the Birthing Room: Obstetrics in America Since the Eighteenth Century. Journal of American History 70, 281-304.

Leavitt, Judith Walzer. (1986). Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750-1950. New York: Oxford University Press.

Levy, Julius. (1913). Maternal Morbidity and Mortality in the First Month of Life in Relation to Attendant at Birth. American Journal of Public Health 13, 88-95.

Lemons, J. Stanley. (1969). The Sheppard-Towner Act: Progressivism in the 1920s. Journal of American History 55, 776-786.

Litoff, Judy Barrett. (1978). American Midwives, 1860 to the Present Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Litoff, Judy Barrett. (1986). The American Midwife Debate- A Sourcebook on Its Modern Origins. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Logan, Onnie Lee. (1989). Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife's Story. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Maternity Center Association. [1955]. Twenty Years of Nurse-Midwifery, 1933-1953. New York: Maternity Center Association.

Medical Care for the American People- The Final Report of the Committee on the Costs of Medical Care. (1932). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Meigs, Grace L. (1917). Maternal Mortality From All Conditions Connected with Childbirth in the United States and Certain Other Countries. Washington, DC: Children's Bureau Publication No. 19.

Moore, Elizabeth. (1917). Maternity and Infant Care in a Rural County in Kansas. Washington, DC: Children's Bureau Publication No. 26.

National Center for Health Statistics (1975, 1976, 1982, 1983, 1984). Monthly Vital Statistics Report 23.

Nihell, Elizabeth. (1760). A Treatise on the Art of Midwifery. London: Morley.

Oxford English Dictionary. (1971). s.v. "midwife."

Packard, Francis. (1931). History of Medicine in the United States. New York: Paul B. Hoeber.

Paradise, Viloa I. (1919). Maternity Care and the Welfare of Young Children in a Homesteading County in Montana. Washington, DC: Children's Bureau Publication No. 34.

Raynolde, Thomas. (1540). Byrth ofMankynde.

Reed, Louis S. (1932). Midwives, Chiropodists and Optometrists: Their Place in Medical Care. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rothman, Barbar Katz. (1982). In Labor: Women and Power in the Birthplace. New York: W.W. Norton.

Sandelowski, Margaret. (1984). Pain Pleasure, and American Childbirth: From the Twilight Sleep to the Read Method, 1914-1960. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Scholten, Catherine M. (1977). 'On the Importance of the Obstetrick Art': Changing Customs of Childbirth in America, 1760-1825. William and Mary Quarterly 34, 426-445.

Scholten, Catherine M. (1985). Childbearing in American Society: 1650-1850. New York: New York University Press.

Shapiro, Sam, Schlesinger, Edward R. & Nesbitt, Robert E.S., Jr. (1968). Infant, Perinatal, Maternal, and Childhood Mortality in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sharp, Jane. (1671). The Midwives Book. London: Simon Miller.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll & Rosenberg, Charles. (1973). The Female Animal: Medical and Biological Views of Woman and Her Role in Nineteenth-Century America. Journal of America History 60, 332-356.

The Progressive Midwife (1927-1932). Trenton, NJ: NJ Bureau of Child Hygiene.

Stewart, Lee. (1976). Why Is There a Need for Alternatives in Childbirth. In David Stewart and Lee Stewart (Eds.). Safe Alternatives in Childbirth. Chapel Hill, NC: NAPSAC, Inc.

Teasley, Regi L. (1986). Nurse and Lay Midwifery in Vermont. In Pamela Eakins (Ed.). The American Way of Birth. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. (1988). Martha Moore Ballard and the Medical Challenge to Midwifery. In Charles E. Clark, James S. Leamon, and Karen Bowden (Eds.). From Revolution to Statehood: Maine in the Early Republic. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Van Blarcom. Carolyn Conant. (1913). The Midwife in England- Being a Study in England of the Working of the English Midwives Act of 1902. Philadelphia: William F. Fell Co.

Warshaw, Robin. (1984). The American Way of Birth: High Tech Hospitals, Birthing Centers, Or No Options at All. Ms. 13, 45-50, 130.

Welter, Barbara. (1966). The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860. American Quarterly 18, 151-174.

Wertz, Richard W. & Dorothy C. (1977). Lying-in: A History of Childbirth in America. New York: The Free Press.

White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. (1933). Fetal, Newborn, and Maternal Morbidity and Mortality. New York: The Century Co.

Williams, J. Whitridge. (1912). Medical Education and the Midwife Problem in the United States. Journal of the American Medical Association 58, 1-7.

Judy Barrett Litoff, Ph.D.

Judy Barrett Litoff is a Professor of History at Bryant College in Smithfield, RI. She is the author of American Midwives, 1860 to the Present, Greenwood Press, 1978 and The American Midwife Debate, Greenwood Press, 1986. She has written more than a dozen scholarly articles on American women's history which have appeared in a variety of journals and edited works including The Historian, Labor History, Journal of Nurse-Midwifery, Journal of Popular Culture, and Notable American Women: The Modern Period She is co-author of Miss You: The World War II Letters of Barbara Wooddall Taylor and Charles E. Taylor, University of Georgia Press 1990. Address correspondence to Bryant College, 450 Douglas Pike, Smithfield, RI 02917-1284.