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Perspectives on Modern Maternal Health and Healthcare, 1850–2000

July 22, 2010

By Janet Greenlees

This workshop took place at Glasgow Caledonian University in April 2010, with minor volcanic interruptions from Iceland. The Wellcome Trust (via the Enhancement Award held by the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare) and the Economic History Society financially supported the event. The Centre’s Outreach/Research Officer, Rhona Blincow, ably handled the complex administrative and funding arrangements.

Participants included clinicians, as well as academics and postgraduates from universities in Britain, Denmark, New Zealand and the USA – although the latter’s paper was delivered by another participant as volcanic ash prohibited travel and technological difficulties prevented video links. This interdisciplinary workshop not only enhanced the Centre’s interests in the field of maternal and family health, but also marks the start of what will hopefully develop into a network of academics and practitioners interested in the history of maternal healthcare.

My introductory session on ‘The Medicalisation of Motherhood: Recent developments in research’ set the scene for the workshop. Thereafter, a number of themes emerged. On the issue of institutions, contributions came from Linda Bryder (University of Auckland) on changes in Western childbirth practices around the mid-20th century and highlighting the increasing importance of hospitalisation and medicalisation, and Salim Al-Gailani (University of Cambridge) on the importance of John William Ballantyne in the development of antenatal care and educating the mother in Edinburgh and how it set the model for the rest of Britain. Dealing with the services provided for expectant mothers, and keeping the Scottish thread, were papers from Alison Nuttall (University of Edinburgh) on the increased use of hospitals in Edinburgh as the choice of birthplace between the Wars and Helen Bryers (NHS Highlands) on the development of maternity services in the Highlands and Islands between 1912 and 1948. Providing the perspective of service users, Angela Davis (University of Warwick) utilised oral histories to describe women’s experiences of maternity services, particularly medical interventions, between 1970 and 1990.

Closely allied with service users was the theme of health education surrounding maternal care. Signild Vallgårada (University of Copenhagen) explained the Danish government’s policy drive towards maternal obedience and self-reliance. Elizabeth Toon (University of Manchester) highlighted British efforts, in the form of the cervical cancer screening campaigns targeted at mothers. This specific focus on mothers tied in to Allison Hepler’s (University of Maine, Farmington) paper on maternal health in the US workplace and the government’s shifting health priorities, from protecting the mother to protecting the fetus. This generated debate about the use of fetal rights for both maternal health legislation and abortion rights campaigns.

Finally, another theme emerged concerning fertility and maternal mortality. Paul Atkinson (University of Leeds) illustrated how rising expectations of the family contributed to falling fertility rates in Britain between 1860 and 1920, while Alice Reid (University of Cambridge) depicted the difficulties in defining the boundaries of maternal mortality in late 19th-century Scotland.

It has often been remarked that historians have underexplored the history and meaning of maternal health and healthcare, focusing instead on maternal mortality. The Glasgow workshop was, it is to be hoped, an important step towards addressing this gap in our historical understanding. While nothing formal was agreed, future meetings of interested researchers are anticipated and ways to further promote and develop this research area are being explored. Anyone with interest in this field is welcome to contact me.

Dr Janet Greenlees is Programme Leader of the MSc Health History in the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare at Glasgow.

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