URI historian examines midwifery and medical men during
KINGSTON, R.I.-December 1, 1998 -- Call URI's Dr. Marie Jenkins Schwartz
of Wakefield a midwife to history. She is helping to deliver new
information about the history of midwifery and the introduction of medical
men into the management of slave childbirths in the south from 1820 to 1860.
"It's telling a different story," says Schwartz from her office
in URI's History Department. "It will correct an imbalance in the existing
literature on the subject, which relies on the records of slaveholders and
medical practitioners to the virtual exclusion of slave sources."
Schwartz's study will consider the goals and aspirations of the slaves
in managing childbirth, as well as those doctors who attempted to supplant
"Slave sources are scattered. I feel like a detective," says
the social historian who finds uncovering documents and discovering bits
of information both exciting and rewarding.
Recent media attention has focused on slave paternity. Improved technology
has made clear that Thomas Jefferson had at least one child with his slave,
Sally Hemings. Schwartz is surprised that some historians were surprised
by the DNA findings. Although slave men fathered most slave children, it
was not unusual for slave masters to have children with their slaves. Schwartz
says some historians are taking a closer look at George Washington. Although
the father of our country had a childless marriage with Martha, there could
well be some Washington descendants who can trace their roots to the Washington
But Schwartz's study does not focus on conception but on birth. Slaves
were valuable property, and slave owners were interested in the best possible
management of that property. When a problem birth was anticipated, medical
men were called in to ensure a successful outcome. The motive appears humane-better
health care for mother and child, but "there was an element of coercion."
Schwartz says slave women were often resistant, hiding their pregnancies
or not reporting labor thereby maintaining some power over their bodies.
Some of the techniques practiced by physicians who attended childbirths
were no more effective than those employed by midwives. More important,
physicians did not understand traditional practices and simply did not have
the skills slaves deemed essential in a childbirth attendant.
Midwives, who were slaves themselves, shared with their patients a culture
that medical men didn't understand. For instance, births involving twins
or babies born with the embryonic sac over their faces were believed to
require special rituals. The midwife would boil the sac into a tea, which
would be fed to the child. Trained medical professionals had no knowledge
of such procedures.
The URI assistant professor is basing her study on a diverse number of
records, ranging from interviews with former slaves conducted by government
and university agents during the 1930s, fugitive slave narratives, plantation
records, memoirs and correspondence of slaveholders, medical dissertations
and records, and popular medical literature. Schwartz says even agriculture
journals can be a rich source since they published articles on the management
of slave "property."
To further her search, Schwartz was recently awarded one of two $5,000
1999 fellowships in the History of American Obstetrics and Gynecology, given
jointly each year by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
and Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp. Schwartz will spend a month next summer in
Washington, D.C., researching medical literature and records.
Schwartz was a Ph.D. student during the late 1980s at the University
of Maryland interested in family and children when she enrolled in a seminar
comparing peasant, slave, and wage labor systems. Surprised to learn that
half of the four million slaves who lived in the South on the eve of the
Civil War were under 16 years old, Schwartz invariably became interested
in slavery, family, and the United States in the 19th Century.
A two-time recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship,
Schwartz is in the process of completing a manuscript "Born In Bondage:
Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum South," in addition to this project
entitled "Medical Men and Midwives: Managing Slave Childbirth."
For More Information: Jan Sawyer, 401-874-2116