Midwife with newborn

Midwife with newborn baby. Source: Staatsarchiv Uri / Fotoarchiv Aschwanden




From home birth to hospital birth: historian examines the midwifery profession

From home birth to hospital birth: historian examines the midwifery profession

Basel historian Sophie Fäs is a member of the Graduate School of the Uri Institute Cultures of the Alps and her dissertation project examines the change from home birth to hospital birth using the cantons of Uri, Baselstadt and Baselland as examples. She is focusing in particular on the relationship between midwives and women giving birth.

The transition from home birth to hospital birth took place much earlier in the two cantons of Basel than in Uri. Obstetrics was established in the Basel hospitals as a completely independent department, separate from surgery, as early as the 1870s. In the decades that followed, there was a significant increase in hospital births. According to the historian, this paradigm shift only became apparent in the canton of Uri in the 1960s. There are many reasons for this. On the one hand, home births long had an important cultural significance in Uri, often associated with tradition and customs. On the other hand, the developed infrastructure of a large city made it much easier to get to hospital.

The social position of midwives
Midwives were one of the few professions in the early modern period that were practiced by women. They received respect and recognition for this. In many parts of Switzerland, it was common for midwives to be elected to their profession. The right to vote was reserved for married and widowed women and was only occasionally transferred to the local council in the course of the 19th century. Midwives enjoyed a special position in the canton of Uri, as they were often the only medically trained people in the valley apart from the doctors.

In the 18th century, midwives trained their daughters or female relatives themselves. The novices accompanied the midwives in their work and took over the profession after their death. In the 19th century, midwifery was institutionalized through the establishment of appropriate training centres. After the midwives' association was founded in 1894, it actively campaigned for the training courses for midwives to be extended in order to enhance the reputation of their profession.

The midwife and the woman giving birth
Women always had certain expectations of midwives. Even in the most remote valleys and villages, it was assumed that the midwife would arrive on time. While in Uri there was often only one midwife per village and there was therefore a dependency, the choice in the two cantons of Basel was much greater. However, with the introduction of the Midwives Act in 1908, women in the canton of Baselland were obliged to consult the midwife employed and subsidized by the village. This example is a good illustration of a change in the relationship between midwives and women giving birth.
The expectant mothers were annoyed by this law, as it took away their freedom of choice to consult a midwife of their preference if they did not trust the local one. Some women filed petitions against unpopular midwives. However, the strategy soon emerged of threatening a hospital birth if their wish for a local midwife was not granted. Hospital birth was thus a means to an end for the pregnant women to defend themselves against this law.

Call for old midwives' diaries
In order to record the personal views of midwives, the historian is dependent on old diaries or other personal documents relating to midwives. If you have an old midwife diary in your home, we would be delighted to receive a short message at mail@kulturen-der-alpen.ch.

Published on 12. March 2024