Midwifery horror revealed in rare 17th century book

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2015-06-26 10:40:30

Midwifery horror revealed in rare 17th century book

A 17th century book entitled Observations in Midwifery, written by obstetrician Percival Willughby, reveals the gruesome details of giving birth in the 1600s.

The book is being auctioned by Dominic Winter among part II of the Birmingham Medical Institute’s antiquarian library sale on July 26th. Four hundred lots of antique medical books, manuscripts, pamphlets and pictures will accompany it. Antique medical works are very sought after by collectors, especially such unusual and rare examples as this. Winters expects the book to sell for between £20,000 and £30,000.

To be offered at auction during a time when outrange is rife among the British media about a shortage of midwives and lack of standards in maternity care, a read of this grisly opus could throw our modern grievances into sharp relief.

It was written at a time when, rather than forceps, a hooked stick was used to hoik the baby out, and often, as a result of grave ignorance, before labour had even begun. The book presents the comparatively modern perspective of Percy Willughby, who practised as an obstetrician from around 1630. He wrote this work circa 1670. It records more than 200 cases of pregnancies and births, describing all manner of malpractices and tragedies that he was witness to or heard about, in all their un-anaesthetised, blood-and-gory detail. He gives advice about letting nature take its course, not interfering, and choosing midwives who will not ‘pull stretch, or hale their bodies, or use any violence to enforce the womb, in hopes of a speedy delivery’.

The work was not published in Willughby’s lifetime, in fact not until 1863. 100 copies were produced and only 17 sold, making it incredibly rare. Only two complete copies are known to remain in existence, the other in the possession of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Willughby’s intention was ‘to inform the ignorant common midwives with such wayes as I have used with good successe … shewing the wayes how to deliver any difficult birth, bee it naturall, or, unnaturall’. It is therefore unusual that the manuscript was not published in his lifetime, being that he wanted to help and educate as many people as possible.

Aside from the obvious medical history and morbid interest points of the work, Willughby describes homes and families he visited, from the height of gentry to the very poorest, so the work also offers a further invaluable insight, into the workings of 17th century society.

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