Birth of a new topic

26 January 2010

Women in ante-natal classes exercising. Grantly Dick-Read / Wellcome Images

Women in ante-natal classes exercising. Grantly Dick-Read / Wellcome Images

We’ve put together the first new topic in Explore since we launched, and it’s all about birth. As you might expect from the Wellcome collections, there’s a diverse selection of material that covers pregnancy and birth in many different cultures.

Some births are notable: those of Buddha and Prince Iskandar (grandson of Tamerlane) have been recorded and celebrated. For the masses, Soviet advice to expectant mothers recommended abandoning traditional practices for the health and hygiene of trained midwives. There’s also evidence of successful caesarean operations in Central Africa at a time when they were typically fatal in Europe. A curiously uniform feature of illustrations of birth is the extremely placid expressions on the faces of women in labour.

Birth is a significantly less hazardous activity than it used to be, thanks to infection control and medical intervention when things go wrong. Technologies like ultrasound (as Raj Dave explains) allow us to see our children in detail long before they are born. It’s interesting to learn, though, that obstetric forceps, one of the most significant innovations in birthing instruments and still in regular use today, were maintained as a trade secret by the Chamberlen family for over a century.

Several excellent films from the Wellcome Films collection illuminate the social history of perinatal care. ‘Childbirth as an Athletic Feat’ shows the work of Kathleen Vaughn, pioneering pelvic exercises in preparation for birth in the 1930s. Maternity is a drama of Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in action, preparing mothers for the big event, and showing the how to care for newborns.

Medical improvements in maternity haven’t always been uncontroversial. The 1982 Scope film ‘A Question of Confidence’ details the efforts of doctors and midwives, including Caroline Flint, working within the National Health Service to deliver a more caring, mother-centred experience of birth. And lest we think that the arrival of every new human being is an unalloyed joy, the Family Planning Association’s rather chilling 1973 film, ‘Family planning in community medicine’ presents the case for the use of birth control as protection against a dangerously spiralling population.