The scholarly midwife

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By | Early Medicine

Known as ‘The scholar’, Louise Bourgeois Boursier (1563–1636) was a recognised midwife within the 17th century French court. The trials and tribulations of her life illustrate the marginal position of female midwives in medicine at the time. Despite this, Bourgeois wrote widely disseminated publications that prove her worth as a highly experienced and scholarly author.

Portrait of Louise Bourgeois Boursier at the age of 45. Plate from Observations diverses, sur le sterilite, perte de fruict, foecondite, accouchements, et maladies des femmes, et enfants nouveaux naiz (Paris: Melchior Mondiere, 1626). EPB/1013/B/1. Wellcome Images L0018642.

The difficulties of working as a female medical practitioner during a period when male medical hierarchies were rife must have been hard to negotiate. With three children of her own, Bourgeois had been forced to flee Paris in 1589 when King Henry IV attacked the city. In the absence of her husband Martin Boursier, who was away working as an army surgeon, Bourgeois was forced to find employment. When she discovered that needlework was not sufficient for her family’s needs, she turned to midwifery as a profession. She had witnessed the medical skills of her husband who had trained under the innovative surgeon Ambroise Paré. Though she met vigorous opposition, in 1598 she successfully passed the official examination to gain admittance to the guild of midwives.

With such credence, she soon found herself treating women of considerable means and somehow infiltrated the French royal court. This marked a meteoric professional rise for a woman at this time. As a female midwife, Bourgeois sat at the bottom of the medical professional pile. Along with tooth pullers and bone-setters, midwives were regarded as manual workers in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Dominating at the top were university trained physicians, followed by surgeons.

Having safely delivered the future Louis VIII, Bourgeois was employed as a trusted midwife to Marie de’ Medici, queen of France (1600–1610), delivering all six of her children. All was well until the death of another client, Marie de Bourbon, duchess of Montpensier, after childbirth. Accused of negligence, Bourgeois was forced to retire from her court position. She was warned in a published remonstrance:

Do not glory in the name of midwife or act as one. See what can be drawn from your presumption and from your writings and do not speak so arrogantly against men who are more experienced and more successful than you are in your profession …

Undeterred, Bourgeois went on to write up her experiences for posterity, publishing numerous works on midwifery. She herself claimed that she was ‘the first woman practising my art to take up the pen’.

Bourgeois’ publications proved to be a lasting legacy. Her three volume obstetrical manual, Observations diverses (Miscellaneous observations) was first published in 1609. Widely celebrated, various translated versions of her work appeared in German (Hebammen Buch) in 1629, English (The compleat midwives practice) in 1656, and Dutch (Het begin en den ingang van alle menschen in de wereld) in 1707.

Title-page of 17th century book.

Title-page of Hebammen Buch, darinn von Fruchtbarkeit und Unfruchtbarkeit der Weiber, zeitigen und unzeitigen Geburt (Frankfort: [E. Kempffer for M. Merian], [1629?]). EPB/1014/B. Wellcome Images L0008167.

Claiming to have helped deliver around 2000 infants, it is not surprising that Bourgeois witnessed her fair share of abnormal births. Among some of her notable recommendations for such difficult cases are her methods of delivering safely a child whose mother is at the point of death, the manual extraction of a child by the legs in the event of severe haemorrhaging (the podalic version), and the successful delivery of a second twin when the mother is too exhausted from an already long labour, as illustrated by the engraver Matthäus Merian in the 1629 German edition.

Engraving showing multiple birth.

A multiple birth, plate from EPB/1014/B. Wellcome Images L0008168.

In Recit veritable de la naissance de Messeigneurs et Dames les enfans de France, first published in 1617, Bourgeois recounted her numerous experiences of overseeing the deliveries of the ‘Ladies of France’. Her Instruction a ma fille (Advice to my daughter) is notable for suggestions such as administering doses of iron to treat anaemia.

Her advice to midwives was simple yet intuitive:

Your only task is to do things properly … A midwife’s gentleness produces better results than harshness … Above all, I advise you, whatever may happen, never seem to be at a loss … Never be surprised if something does not go well; because fear troubles the senses. Someone who is self contained and does not become upset, is able to set important matters right.

Proving that her medical knowledge was broader than just obstetrics, Bourgeois listed around 280 recipes, that dealt with not only childbirth but also a wide range of other medical issues, in Recueil des secrets (‘Collection of secrets’) in 1635. Like all her written work, these recipes offered practical daily solutions to common medical problems that were intended not only for other midwives, but also parturient women and the untrained.

Midwifery may have returned to the domain of the traditionally trained male physician by 1700 (see more on the ‘man-midwife’ in this earlier blog post), but Bourgeois did much to strengthen the role of the woman in this realm in her time. She paved the way for subsequent female midwives Jane Sharp published her manual entitled The midwives book. Or the whole art of midwifery discovered. Directing childbearing women how to behave themselves in 1671. To be recognised and still regarded as an authority on midwifery centuries later is quite a feat. Bourgeois’ ‘podalic version’ operation was still acknowledged in the early 20th century according to this 1912 manual, and contemporary artists have since been drawn to her work.

In 2005 her namesake, the artist Louise Joséphine Bourgeois (1911–2010), was inspired by the midwife’s last book, Recueil des secrets. Tapping into the theme of motherhood and the female body, the artist created several colour plates and one loose offset lithograph for the famed 17th century midwifery manual. A fitting modern tribute to a remarkable woman.

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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