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Improvements in safety and comfort for women giving birth

FAMILY WAY: An information booklet for a Norlestrin Petipac, circa 1975, from the collection of John Rock, Class of 1918. Courtesy of the Warren Anatomical Museum in the Francis A. Countway Library. Photo: Paul Morrison

For millennia, mediating childbirth was the province of women. As the original obstetricians—from the Latin, obstetrix, “midwife”—women routinely assisted other women in giving birth at home. “Man-midwives,” or accoucheurs, became fashionable in seventeenth-century France and, later, in England, particularly for difficult births. In England, the Chamberlen family gained fame for its secret method of successfully assisting obstructed births. That procedure, which remained closely guarded for nearly a century, involved a type of forceps invented by a member of that family in the early 1600s.

LABOR INTENSIVE: A plaster Dickinson-Belskie birth model, one in a series of reproductive anatomy educational tools created for the 1939 World’s Fair. Courtesy of the Warren Anatomical Museum. Photo: Paul MorrisonLater innovations included the use of chloroform as an anesthetic and the implementation of antiseptic and aseptic practices, essential for successful cesarean deliveries. Early cesarean deliveries often failed, however, because of poor surgical techniques or infection. Improved surgical procedures and more in-hospital births brought double-digit reductions in the maternal mortality rate, but it was the advent of antibiotics that drove the rate down more than 70 percent before the close of the 1940s. By this time midwifery, renamed obstetrics, was taught in medical schools, and the role of women as obstetricians was diminishing.COIN TOSS: A Rythmeter (right), a calculator for the rhythm method of birth control, patented in 1947; and medals from the collection of Horatio Robinson Storer, Class of 1853, commemorating the pregnancy of Princess Elisabeth Christine of Bohemia in 1723. Rythmeter courtesy of the Harvard Medical Library. Medals courtesy of the Boston Medical Library. Photos: Paul Morrison

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Commemorations of Birth and Death

From the Storer Collection, Boston Medical Library in the Countway Library of Medicine

Among the Boston Medical Library’s more unusual holdings is its collection of more than 4,000 medical medals and coins. Horatio Robinson Storer, Class of 1853, presented the bulk of the collection to the library in 1900, in memory of his father. After contracting septicemia in 1872, Storer was compelled to abandon his gynecological practice and turned to the study and collection of coins and medals, specifically those relating to medicine, collecting portrait medals of individuals as well as medals relating to diseases, hospitals, medical colleges, societies, institutions, nursing, and pharmacy.

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