Irish Births with Midwives from 1865 to 1875
By: Meridith Anness
Throughout the 19th century, the number of Irish immigrants settling in Cincinnati grew profoundly. These immigrants brought with them a rich cultural heritage that would forever change American perceptions of the Irish as their ideals, traditions and beliefs took root and grew in Cincinnati and throughout the country. However they also brought poverty, which was a common reason young people left Ireland in the first place. Young men found work as manual laborers and women as housemaids. Many Irish immigrants married other Irish immigrants with the intent of starting a family. With many poor women giving birth (the Irish weren’t the only poor immigrants in the area), there needed to be some form of skilled aid to assist in this process. It needed to be inexpensive as these women didn’t have much to give, mobile because most women gave birth in their homes and fast, as emergencies could arise at any time. This is where midwives played such an integral role. They served all these needs for women who would have otherwise birthed their children on their own. This research examines the role of midwives who served the Irish population in the Cincinnati area and explores the University of Cincinnati’s digitized birth and death records collection for the years 1865-1875, with a sample size of 87 births with midwives where both parents were listed as Irish. In researching these records, several interesting patterns emerged which both confirm hypotheses and raise new questions for further research.
Until the early 1900s, midwifery was not a regulated profession. Women often learned skills of the trade by serving as apprentices to other practicing midwives, just as doctors were trained at the time (Sullivan). During this period, birth was considered a social event for women. The mother-to-be would find comfort from her female friends and relatives who gathered for the birth (Martin). It was common for midwives to serve minority and impoverished groups because they could not afford to seek out a physician for their care. For this reason, midwives were necessary among an immigrant population. They often served in the areas where they lived due to increased convenience for both the midwife and the expectant mother (Barnawi et al). Even though no formal training existed, midwives had to be extremely skilled in order to prevent complications for both the newborn and the mother. Experienced midwives could administer ergot fungi or instruct the woman to walk around to speed up the labor. They could intervene in cases of breech pregnancies, foreseeing these problems before they arose. An interesting example of this is Martha Ballard, a midwife who practiced in the early 1800s. She kept an invaluable diary detailing her work, and proudly wrote that although she had lost several infants over the years, she had never lost a mother (Sullivan). Midwives actually had a lower rate of passing infection to mothers than doctors did – because the germ theory had not yet been established, doctors went from tending sick patients to mothers in labor, whereas midwives only had to focus on the mother. Still, their care was seen as inferior to that of a male physician, especially as more information was available about the female reproductive system. Yet the medical schools which taught this only accepted men (Martin). As medical technology continued to advance, midwives became almost obsolete. However, it is impossible to question the impact they made on the populations they served throughout the 1800s.
In exploring the Cincinnati birth and death records, a sample size of 87 births with midwives were found where both parents were listed as from Ireland. From these 87 births, 38 were attributed to just three midwives, a statistically significant amount. These women were Elizabeth (Lizette) Wulfekuhl with 19 births, Amelia Grabo with nine births and Maria Sphener with ten. Of these women, an address was found for Lizette Wulfekuhl (Budd and Donnersberger Streets) and for Amelia Grabo (87 Martin Drive) in the 1870 Cincinnati Directory. The location of Wulfekuhl’s home explains her high rate of interaction with Irish mothers, as the Price Hill area was home to many Irish immigrants. Some of the births she attended were located on 7th Street, 6th Street, Sloo Street, and Barr Street, each of these locations being less than a three-block walk from her home. Additionally, Amelia Grabo lived in the Mount Adams neighborhood, another working class Irish neighborhood at the time, apparently with her mother or sister, who was listed in the directory as a cigar maker. She attended many births on 3rd Street, again a walk down the hill from her home. This information demonstrates that as predicted, these women lived near where they served. Even though additional information about the backgrounds of these women is unavailable, searching the origins of the last names Grabo and Wulfekuhl reveals that they are strongly German. Perhaps these women were German immigrants, called upon to act as midwives for other women in addition to their ethnic German neighbors.
The focus of this research, midwives that served the Irish immigrants of Cincinnati, is a very specific topic. Many individual pieces of information were brought together to paint a more detailed picture of what this actually looked like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like most inquiries, some pitfalls were encountered. Unfortunately, Maria Sphener, the second most frequently recorded midwife for the Irish at the time, could not be located in a city directory. Her address would have provided a key detail that would allow for a connection between her home and the area she served. Additionally, few reliable sources were available that placed midwifery in the proper historical context relevant to this research. This difficulty was alleviated by the few in-depth sources that did explore midwifery during the selected time period. Further research could include the specific socioeconomic factors that influenced women to choose a midwife over a physician and the differences in outcomes of births with midwives versus births with physicians. Overall, this topic remains an interesting study of the intersection between Irish Americans and the profession of midwifery.
Barnawi N, Richter S and Habib F (2013). Midwifery and Midwives: A Historical Analysis. J. Res. Nurs. Midwifery 2(8) 114-121. http://interesjournals.org/full-articles/midwifery-and-midwives-a-historical-analysis.pdf?view=inline
Cincinnati Birth and Death Records, 1865-1912. University of Cincinnati Digital Resource Commons, https://drc.libraries.uc.edu/handle/2374.UC/2032
Cincinnati City Directory, 1875. http://www.donslist.net/PGHLookups/cgi-bin/HandOff-1_0.cgi?CinciOH1875+CinciOH1875+0185SP
“Cincy.” Price Hill – Overview. Cincy.com, n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2017. http://cincy.com/home/neighborhoods/parms/1/hood/price-hill.html
Feildhusen, Adrian E. “The History of Midwifery and Childbirth in America: A Time Line Prepared by Adrian E. Feldhusen, Traditional Midwife.” The History of Midwifery and Childbirth – A Time Line. Midwifery Today, n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2017. https://www.midwiferytoday.com/articles/timeline.asp
Martin, Kelsey. “Short History of Midwifery.” Gentle Delivery Midwifery Services (Certified Professional Midwife Serving State College, Bellefonte & Centre Co. Pennsylvania). N.p., 28 Nov. 2009. Web. 02 Apr. 2017. https://gentlemidwife.wordpress.com/a-short-history-of-midwifery/
Map of Cincinnati circa 1900 http://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/workspace/handleMediaPlayer?lunaMediaId=RUMSEY~8~1~23953~870016
Sullivan, Elanor. “Midwifery in the 19th Century.” Eleanor Sullivan. N.p., 02 Sept. 2016. Web. 02 Apr. 2017. http://www.eleanorsullivan.com/2012/02/06/midwifery-in-the-19th-century/