"Never forget her sex" : medicalizing childbirth in Manitoba, 1880s to 1920s

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Miller, Tamara Lee-Ann
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This dissertation is a study of the ways in which childbirth was medicalized between the 1880s and 1920s through an intensive examination of the transformation of childbirth care in Manitoba. During these years, maternal and infant mortality and morbidity became public health concerns and the newly established professions of medicine and nursing aimed at both professional and social standing in Canada. The dissertation argues that the presence of physicians in the birthing room and, ultimately, the transition of the locus of childbirth from home to hospital, were neither accompanied by nor represented an immediate transfer of authority over the birth experience. As nurses and as patients, women were critical to the process of medicalizing childbirth. The dissertation is based upon patient records from Winnipeg hospitals and clinics, medical textbooks and journals, as well as information about medical and nursing education and practices, and demographic information about Winnipeg and Manitoba. Medicine offered the promise of safer, less painful births through the use of instruments and narcotics. However, these same remedies were often controversial within the profession and for patients. Physicians advocated their authority in the birthing room, but acknowledged their paucity of knowledge about the field of obstetrics. Nurses represented a new breed of medical professionals and struggled to forge a feminine professional identity alongside male physicians. Through their attendance at childbirth cases as scientifically trained caregivers, nurses gravitated between the two worlds of medicine and mothers. Patients, meanwhile, indirectly influenced the involvement of medical practitioners. By seeking or rejecting medical attendants, parturient women had a degree of control in the management of the birth process.