History Nebraska Blog

“Grandma Gabel, she brought Ralph”: Midwifery and the Lincoln Health Department

By the early 20th century, most Anglo-American women had a physician present at births. However,  many rural, minority, or immigrant groups such as the Volga Germans still relied on midwives. As the Volga German population grew in Lincoln, Nebraska, difficulties with organizing birth records and accusations of quackery led to several confrontations between the tradition of midwifery and the Lincoln Department of Health. In the winter 2013 issue of Nebraska History, researcher Rebecca J. Anderson explores these interactions as they shaped the practices of an entire Lincoln subculture. See "'Grandma Gable, She Brought Ralph': Midwifery and the Lincoln, Nebraska, Department of Health in the Early Twentieth Century."

In the 18th century, Catherine the Great of Russia made offers of religious and linguistic freedoms, as well as exemption from military service, to immigrants. Because of these offers, many ethnic Germans moved to Russia and settled in the Volga River Valley. Anderson explains how “a century later, facing the revocation of previously guaranteed privileges, many of these ‘Volga Germans’ began leaving for the Americas.” A large group of Protestant Volga Germans settled in the North and South Bottoms of Lincoln, retaining much of their culture.

That culture included the practice of midwifery. Many Volga Germans distrusted doctors and preferred to employ neighborhood midwives who charged considerably lower prices and knew all their traditions. Some traditions were as simple as special soup fed to the mother after birth, or washing the newborn’s eyes with milk. Other traditions drew the disparagement of outsiders; for example families never revealed the baby’s name until after he had been baptized in order to protect the infant from evil spirits.

Disdain of these practices led many outside the Volga German community to categorize midwives along with “osteopaths, magnetic healers, Christian Scientists and other ‘quack’ physicians.” This stereotype was made worse by the misconception that infant mortality rates were higher in the North and South Bottoms than in other parts of the city. As it turned out, the percentage of infant mortality only appeared to be worse because midwives were more likely to report problematic births than healthy ones. When taking into account baptism records along with birth records from the Volga German communities, it was found that infant mortality was no worse there than in the rest of the city.

The city and state governments made multiple attempts to curtail the practice of midwifery. An 1891 medical licensing law stated that “It is unlawful for any person to practice medicine, surgery, or obstetrics, or any branches thereof, in this state, without first having obtained and registered the certificate provided for by this act.” However this legislation was difficult to enforce as long as immigrants continued to hire midwives.

In 1915, the Lincoln Department of Health’s new superintendent Dr. Chauncey Chapman tried a different strategy. Calling several midwives together, he began asking midwives to voluntarily comply to the city’s organization in exchange for legal protection and access to education. Many midwives agreed to the plan. Although the Department of Health and the midwives still clashed on several matters, their cooperation allowed them to focus on shared goals rather than their lingering disagreements.

Eventually, midwifery began to taper off on its own. As immigrants became more comfortable with physicians, and as Volga German immigration dropped off around World War I, use of the services of midwives declined. The cooperation of the midwives and the Department of Health had eased the transition for many immigrants from traditional medical practices to more modern ones, and the children of the Volga Germans would see birth in a whole new way.

- Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant, Publications

Update: This article is the winner of the 2013 James L. Sellers Award.

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