One of the earliest victories in the war on science

It's not a big secret that women used to die in childbirth quite often. Modern medical science has made the procedure ever safer, but that's a change from how it used to be. Adding doctors to childbirth used to be like trying to put out a fire with an entire petroleum plant. When it was suggested that doctors do things like wash their hands before delivering a baby, such a large percentage of them took offense and refused to wash that mortality rates actually went up.

But it wasn't always the fault of the doctors. Many did try, but in the Middle Ages, male doctors weren't even allowed to view childbirth. In the 1600s, some doctors delivered babies in dark rooms with their patients fully covered. Some sat in the room next to the birthing chamber and shouted instructions to midwives or female assistants.

A few doctors tried to deliver babies themselves. One was Dr Wertt, a physician in Hamburg in 1522, who wanted to figure out where babies come from in an actual scientific fashion. He finally dressed as a woman and attended births with other midwives, learning how to birth babies safely. Unfortunately, someone he knew one day saw him dressed as a woman. There was an investigation and he was figuratively uncovered. A hundred years later a doctor doing the same thing in America was fined. Not so with Dr Wertt. All the other physicians in the area were gathered together in the town square, and were made to watch him burned at the stake. That sated the local thirst for knowledge for quite some time.

What turned the tide? Not morality or even science, but fashion. Ambroise Paré began introducing the male medical profession to birthing in the late 1500s, in France. He was a famous war surgeon, who could get away with a lot more than most, and came up with a way to deliver breech births. But in the 1600s, Louis XIV started using male midwives to deliver his illegitimate children. His wife was still to respectable, but Louis' mistresses were more glamorous than his wives, and the idea of men in the birthing chamber became fashionable over time.

Given the fact that many medical practices were not as safe as the procedures of the midwives, and sometimes not even as safe as braving the process alone this was not an entirely good thing. But it was a step towards the idea that people shouldn't be burned alive in the name of knowing science.

Image: Flickr

Via The Medical Book and Wonders and Marvels.