Eighteenth-Century Midwifery in Dublin, Ireland

How did the Dublin citizen of the 18th century made his or her debut in this city of ours?

When this happy event was in the offing, the steps to be taken depended very largely on the social condition of the parents. If she was not a member of Society, the prospective mother had to be content with the ministration of the Midwife, who was even worse in the 18th century than Dickens portrayed her in the 19th. By its Charter of 1692, the College of Physicians was empowered to examine all midwives and to license all such as it found fit to exercise that profession, but up to 1740 it had licensed but four, and of these only one was a woman, who had been licensed in the 17th century. (5) The College rather looked down its nose at midwives, or indeed at anyone who had anything to do with a birth. Any surgeon who specialised in obstetrics was referred to as a “man-midwife” and the College went so far as to refuse, in 1753, to licence in physic any person who “hath or doth practise midwifery.” Amongst those excluded by the ban was Fielding Ould, which led to a fine row between the University of Dublin and the College of Physicians. Gilborne, the medical poet, gave in verse, (5) his opinion, which is one we all probably would share :-

Why may not any Doctor that would chuse

For Man’s Relief his total knowledge use,

Or does one Portion of ApoIIo’s Trade,

More than the rest his votaries degrade?

The verse may be halting but the sentiments were sound. Ould was knighted in 1760, and in the following year Trinity gave him the M.D., but at that time he had been two years Master of the Rotunda Hospital. There seems no doubt that amongst his distinguished patients was the Countess of Mornington, at the birth of her son, Arthur Wellesley, afterwards Duke of Wellington. (5)

Twenty-four years earlier, another Dublin lady had made history, a lady whose name is now almost forgotten – Judith Rochfort, of the parish of St. Andrew.  On Friday, 15th March, 1745, she was the first prospective mother to enter the welcome portals of the Lying-in Hospital for Poor Women, just opened by Dr. Bartholomew Mosse, in the house in George’s Lane, where Madame Violante was presenting Peg Woffington to a world which was soon to be at her feet. Five days later Judith presented St. Andrew’s with a new parishioner, a boy, (6) the first of the mighty throng of new Dublin citizens to issue from the house in George’s Lane and later from the Rotunda Hospital, on the cupola of which Mosse had blazoned his sign-a gilded cradle. It is to be regretted that this charming trade-mark was removed in 1776, having become unsafe, and still more is it to be regretted that it was not preserved. (5)

The attitude of the College towards obstetric surgeons would now seem incredible, but the relations of the professions at the time must be considered. A doctor of physic claimed precedence over a doctor of laws, a surgeon over an advocate, and an apothecary over a proctor.(7) It is quite understandable that the College of Physicians would not grant a degree in physic to one who practiced solely as a surgeon; but why a surgeon, even if skilled in physic, should be barred simply because he engaged (or even ever had engaged) in maternity work, seems incomprehensible. As a rule, physicians were graduates of universities, and they alone, up to the beginning of the 19th century, could claim the appendage of “Esquire” to their names. Surgeons learned their art by apprenticeship, just as the tailor and goldsmith did, and, accordingly, were classed in the higher ranks of tradesmen. They could describe themselves only as “Mister,” (7) a peculiarity which has continued to this day, but now rather to the pride of the surgeons as a distinguishing mark between them and the physicians.

Neither of the professions, however, disdained the uses of publicity. In November, 1728, James Brenan, M.D., was advertising a course in osteology, myology, angiology, neurology, adenology and enterology at his house on Arran Quay, where Peter Brenan, Surgeon, performed the operative part. The fee for the course was two pistoles which, we learned from Mr. Henry F. Tivy’s paper, ” Currency in Old Dublin” (8) would be approxiimately £1. 15 shillings. ” And if any students in Physick or Chirurgery, be desirous to read Anatomy, and Dissect, they maly be Instructed and Accomodated at the same place, on reasonable Terms.” (9)

About 1745, John Taylor, Doctor of Physick, ” Occulist” to the King, Fellow of several Colleges of Physicians, etcetera (according to preliminary newspaper puffs), descended on Dublin to give lectures on the eye, its beauties and how it was affected by the passions. His wonderful cures amongst the poor (whom he treated free of charge), were written up in prose and verse, and incidentally, he introduces us to an early form of an affliction with which we are now painfully familiar-the “queue.” He announced that, ” to prevent any Ladies of Quality and Distinction (for whom only these Lectures are intended), disappointing him for the future of their Presence, ’tis hereby requested, that every such Lady will please to send a Footman at Four in the Afternoon, with the Name of the Lady written that he comes from, to keep a Place till his Lady shall arrive.” (10) ” He may have copied this idea from the New Theatre, Capel Street, whose doors opened at five p.m., servants being allowed to keep places until their employers arrived. (10)  He gave separate lectures for the gentlemen –  possibly the passions which, according to him, affected the eye, were not fit subjects for a mixed audience, but evidently the crush by the gentlemen did not equal the rush by the ladies.

It will be noted that Dr. John Taylor, Oculist to the King; etcetera, etcetera, expressed his desolation at the idea that he might be deprived of the attendance of any lady of quality at his lectures, in the most genteel terms, such as one would expect from an “Esquire.” The poor surgeons had not yet reached this eminence, either in diction or distinction. Some ten years later, one, Le Tournier, from Paris, took up considerable space in the Press (11) to express his feelings in rather less polite language:-

“Envy has ever been the predominant passion of pretenders to art and science. Whenever a person, eminent in his profession, makes his appearance, an outcry is immediately raised against him by the most ignorant and, consequently, the greatest imposers on the public ; by which his character is injured, and such as are capable of being imposed on, are deterred from employing him. This I have sufficiently experienced since my arrival in this Kingdom. I am a Surgeon, regularly bred in Paris, and have practised in this City and other parts of this Kingdom for two years, with remarkable success, though to the great offence of my brethern who, for no other reason but because I perform cures in half the time, quarter of the expense, and without wasting my patients after a tedious course of ill-judged medicines – (an obvious tilt at the physicians) -industriously made out that my method of proceeding is inconsistent with regular practice, and the French know nothing of surgery, etc., although several of these gentlemen, after spending a year or so in France, without knowing the language, or [having had] an opportunity of being present at one good operation, or any other qualification than having guzzled an inordinate quantity of claret, despise those that have proceeded on different principles. Notwithstanding the opposition of such, I intend to settle in this City and hope to demonstrate by my skill and assiduity that all imputations to the prejudice of the character are equally groundless and malicious.”

From which mixture of abuse and defiance, one can gather that Monsieur Le Tournier was considerably annoyed. One can imagine the College of Physicians tapping its gold snuff box and, having taken a prodigious pinch, breathing out- “But what else could one expect, my dear fellow!” That is, of course, if the College condescended to notice him at all in face of the fact that, on his arrival in Dublin, Monsieur Le Tournier had advertised himself as ” Surgeon and Man-midwife.”

Book References

  1. Kirkpatrick : Book of the Rotunda Hospital
  2. Pue’s Occurrences, 23-26 Mar., 1745
  3. Cameron : History of Roy. College of Surgeons.
  4. Dublin Historical Record, Vol. VIII, p. 24
  5. Dublin Weekly Journal, 12 Oct., 1728
  6. Faulkner’s Journal, 1743-4

10A, Pue’s Occurrences, 22-6 Jan., 1745

  1. Universal Advertiser, 1754

Extracted from : “An Eighteenth Century Miscellany” by Thomas King Moylan.  Published in Dublin Historical Record.  Vol. X, No. 2.  June-Aug 1948