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Book review: ‘Seattle Pioneer Midwife’

Susan E. Fleming’s novel “Seattle Pioneer Midwife: Alice Ada Wood Ellis Midwife, Nurse & Mother to All” is a true, turn-of-the-century story about a woman who dedicates herself to midwifery and the care of some of the nation’s most underserved women.

Filling in with some historically based fiction, Fleming depicts the life and times of her great-grandmother, Alice Ada Wood Ellis. Alice travels by train in 1900 to Seattle with her mother and her two daughters, to join her father as they embarked on a new chapter of their lives. With just one year of nursing school but a rich upbringing among women who functioned as midwives, Alice uses her knowledge and skills to help bring babies into the world. Fleming calls Alice a pioneer, but she was more than that. She was a modern woman who escaped a bad marriage despite strict societal rules, a feminist who fought for women’s rights early in the suffrage movement, and an autonomous nurse whose expertise was respected and sought after. She offered her midwifery services to a subculture that most deemed un-reputable: The prostitutes of Seattle.

Susan E. Fleming

“Alice was very busy caring for her patients in her Green Lake home. Many of the prostitutes whose birthings she assisted came down from the Alaska-Yukon or up from the Seattle waterfront. Some had arranged to place their babies in an orphanage or a children’s home following the birth. A few of the mothers offered their babies for adoption, but demand was low. A very small number of women found themselves emotionally distraught after giving birth and decided to keep their babies. … One thing was for sure — every woman was different, and each had her own story and her own plans.”

Filled with photographs, “Seattle Pioneer Midwife” provides a close-up view of midwifery and obstetrics in the early 20th century. How did women contain post-partum bleeding? What supplies were needed for birthing? How were labor pains dealt with? What kinds of regulations existed? Some of the information illustrates antiquated obstetrical practices of the time, while others are examples of methods and knowledge that are still in use today.

“Back in Wisconsin Alice helped Grandma French with birthing and she had warned Alice to never be satisfied after a birth unless you know what the uterus is doing — it’s your duty! If you can’t find the uterus, lay the woman flat … So she did. There it was. Much higher than normal. Not very firm, and over to the right. Then Alice based her thoughts on Grandma French’s teachings, which were first see if a mother might need to go to the bathroom.”

For those readers with a lesser interest in nursing history, the read may seem dry at times, but certain stories will grab hold; like that of Stella, a fascinating prostitute who is no stranger to giving birth. And a premature baby boy whose mother abandons him in Alice’s home. These personal stories take place on the backdrop of the city of Seattle, a burgeoning new metropolis filled with Americans looking for a fresh start.

For the nurses out there who are passionate about maternity and obstetrics, “Seattle Pioneer Midwife” is a treasure trove of history to page through and a tribute to all of the ways in which singular incredible nurses, like Alice herself, have helped push the profession forward.



By | 2020-04-15T16:36:57-04:00 August 7th, 2014|Categories: Archived|1 Comment

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