The Birth of Midwifery

As women gave birth, they sought and received care from supportive others. At an unknown point in the cultural evolution, some experienced women became designated as the wise women to be in attendance at birth. Thus, the profession of midwifery began. Indeed, as historians have noted, midwifery has been characterized as a social role throughout recorded history, regardless of culture or time.

Biblical recognition of the functions of midwives included several verses recounting the experiences of two Hebrew midwives who refused to kill male infants in defiance of the King of Egypt (Exodus 1:15-22). Other verses in the Bible also make passing references to midwifery attendance at birth, implying that it was ubiquitous (Genesis 35:17; 38:28). Historians have found the practice of midwifery referred to in other papyri as well as in ancient Hindu records.

In Greek and Roman times, midwives functioned as respected, autonomous care providers to women during their reproductive cycles. Some qualifications for the practice of midwifery began to evolve during this period. For example, in Greece the midwife was a woman who had born children herself. This requirement has remained a commonality in the practice of midwifery throughout several cultures and exists even today.

"Midwife" is a word which in English was translated to mean "with woman", implying the supportive, not interventive, functions of the practitioner. In French a midwife is a sage femme, or a "wise woman". A general thread in all of the references regarding ancient midwifery was support of the woman in labor. Labor was perceived as a basically natural process.

The profession of midwifery continued without major changes throughout the centuries, even through the Dark and Middle Ages. In their practices, midwives routinely used herbs and potions, as forerunners of today's modern pharmaceuticals. The midwives of these centuries generally continued to learn by the apprentice model. As an apprentice, skills and knowledges were shared from generation to generation but without the development of a formalized system of university education. Therefore, midwives did not benefit from the scientific inquiry that developed early in medical schools. Eventually midwifery in most affluent countries developed formalized programs, although apprenticing still may be part of some.
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Midwives are the most common birth attendant in the world. The average child is born in this world is born into the hands of a midwife.

The History Behind Midwifery

Midwives and midwifery in some form have always existed. In fact the midwife is mentioned in the book of Genesis 35:17 "And when she was in hard labour, the midwife said to her "Fear not, for now you will have another son." The derivation of the word midwife is from the Anglo-Saxon "mit wif" or with woman. The ancient Jews called her the wise woman - ...

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