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You've Come a Long Way, Baby

August 28, 1995|DAWN BONKER

Anthropologist Margaret Mead was miffed that she wasn't allowed a stopwatch. Elizabeth Hopkins was the first to do it on the Mayflower. Poor Leo Tolstoy's wife had to wait for her doctor to finish his coffee before he came to her bedside.

Childbirth stories are nothing new--just people's freedom with them. Some of the most fascinating come from the journals, diaries and medical texts of history.

* The first Cesarean section in America was performed in 1792 by a desperate Virginia doctor on his own wife. He conducted the surgery on a table of wooden planks, removed her ovaries while he was at it to prevent further pregnancy, and closed the incision with linen thread. Miraculously, she recovered completely.

* Mary Tudor, older daughter of Henry VIII, lived out a fantasy pregnancy, sometimes called a phantom pregnancy, complete with swollen belly and England's bated breath. No baby ever materialized.

* Forceps were kept literally under wraps and in the dark for three generations by the medical family that devised the first such tool. The men of the Chamberlen family, physicians in 17th-Century England, cloaked themselves and their patients in sheets and often dimmed the lights to keep source of their prowess a mystery.

* Mead was among the first contemporary women to nudge hospitals toward a more natural treatment of childbirth. She showed her nurses a film of childbirth and breast-feeding in New Guinea and refused anesthetics. She never did get that stopwatch to time her contractions, but she did get a photographer friend into the delivery room. Not bad for 1939.

*

Sources: "Ever Since Eve: Personal Reflections on Childbirth" by Nancy Caldwell Sorel (Oxford University Press, 1984) and "Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America" by Richard W. Wertz and Dorothy C. Wertz (The Free Press, 1977).

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