By Karen Utter Jennings
Disclaimer: In writing this article, I make no claims to persuade folks to choose folk remedies over a medical doctor should a person have an illness. I merely write historical articles about interesting topics, and especially enjoy researching women and history. So with that in mind, I give you information about midwifery in Southwest Missouri.
Women have always been the backbone of families. They served in many capacities and their duties included caring for their children, their husband, and many times their elderly parents, siblings, as well as neighbors and friends. Homemakers did not need a job outside of the home, for homemaking included everything from making soap and doing the laundry, caring for the needy and the ill, to helping tend the farm work when need be.
In days long gone, Ozarks women learned from their own mothers and grandmothers how to care for the sick and how to help bring babies into the world. Their medicine came from the earth; the plants, flowers and trees provided remedies to cure the sick and afflicted.
The most knowledgeable and experienced of these women were healers and midwifes, often-called Granny Women. They were known far and wide for their giving service and helping hands. Folks depended upon the woman to come when the need arose and they relied on the Granny Woman’s special knowledge of herbs, roots, and concoctions. Those women had skills and the wisdom to use the native plants for healing purposes.
In early days, doctors were few and far between. Sometimes the great distance a doctor had to travel was a hindrance for those who were gravely ill. Before the turn of the century, many doctors were not trained in the knowledge of germs. The states lacked standardized licensing requirements, the quality of their education varied, and so their medical practices were handled with crude effectiveness.
Many rural Ozarkian women preferred the familiar Granny Woman to treat them with their mild herbal remedies and to deliver their babies. Traditional midwives met the concern for modesty during the birthing process, an important consideration in areas where the use of male doctors might offend an entire community.
Some midwives carried a “midwife’s book” to reference when complicated childbirth procedures arose. Sometimes they used superstitious rituals to give mothers psychological relief such as having the mother hold something that belonged to her husband to symbolically bring him into the delivery room. Their use of herbal remedies and teas helped speed the birth along; but they might also use morphine tablets or quinine when the pain became unbearable, if the medicine was available.
After the birth of a baby, the Granny Woman might stay for a week or longer to help about the house and allow the new mother time in bed to heal. Caring for the new mother, the new baby, and doing housework and household chores was of great importance to keep the woman from hemorrhaging or having other childbirth complications.
Many times Granny Woman was not paid with money. Rather, they accepted whatever offering the family could provide at the time, possibly giving her meat or chickens, vegetables from the garden or enough material to make a dress. If the family had nothing, that was all right, too.
As midwives became certified within their home state, they were able to charge to attend births. The going rate in 1906 was $3.00 her birth attendance.
Granny Women knew how to prepare herbs, roots, tree bark and other native plants and flowers to make healing ointments, teas, poultices, and concoctions. Most native roots had to be gathered before the sap began to rise because they lost their value after that. And, some plants became poisonous at certain points in their growth cycle.
For example, Southwest Missouri midwives surely combined sage, peppermint, black walnut, slippery elm bark, pokeroot, horseradish, elderberries, dill weed, with honey, black strap molasses, lard, onions, vinegar and whiskey to make tonics, potions, plasters, poultices, and teas. And many a child with an earache had tobacco smoke blown into their ears as a cure.
The Missouri Medical College was originally organized in 1840 as the Medical Department of Kemper College. It was the first medical school established west of the Mississippi river. In 1845, it became the Medical Department of the University of Missouri. There are a few women midwives listed on the Missouri History Program website, all of whom lived in St. Louis, Missouri for the years of 1888-1892.
The American Medical Association was founded in 1847. Eventually doctors began to resent midwives. They looked upon the granny women as competition for business. The medical profession was growing and insisted upon education, standard examination procedures, and licensing requirements for all practicing physicians. Throughout the nation, doctors waged a campaign to run midwives out of business. They portrayed the women as being ignorant of medical procedures and lacking cleanliness.
Midwives practiced cleanliness by scrubbing and cleaning their homes on a daily basis. After attending deliveries, they cleaned up the bed and the new mother and infant. Sterile environments did not come along until years later when hospitals flourished.
Even though European countries were establishing schools of midwifery, American doctors were refusing to admit women to medical schools. When the American Medical Association demanded that all people practicing medicine be trained and then licensed, that was the demise of midwifery.
However, in the isolated hills and hollows of the Ozarks Mountains in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, as well as other isolated parts of the United States, Granny Women continued to serve their communities with their skills into the twentieth century. Ozarks folklorists have collected information about these women and their healing practices.
Until the New Deal programs and World War II changed the region’s financial system and transportation, bad roads and the lack of money forced most Ozarkians to rely on native remedies prepared by the womenfolk of the family.
Eventually, pregnant women began to enter hospitals to give birth and Granny Women went by the wayside. The science of medicine scoffed at the nurturing and holistic care that midwives had provided their family, friends and neighbors.
The era of the women’s healing art of domestic medicine is now history. But if we look closely into our own family history, we would surely find Granny Women.
My great, great-grandmother Nancy Smith Johnson practiced midwifery and the healing arts in the hills and hollows of McDonald County, Missouri. Although I have not found any legal certificates providing that information, it is noted in her obituary. Taken from her obituary, it reads: “The nights were never too dark nor the times too hard for Nancy Johnson to willingly lend a helping hand in time of need. She could count by the dozens the babies she helped into the world and the lives she practically saved. Her cheerful disposition and pleasant smile made her most enjoyable to all around her.”
My family photographs of Nancy Johnson show her as short and petite, with black hair and a thin face with a sharp jutting chin and high cheekbones. She bore five children in her lifetime and passed away in 1949 at Rocky Comfort, Missouri.
Among the acquisitions at the McDonald County Historical Museum, we found Delpha Laughlin’s midwife certificate. Issued on October 20th, 1884, at the State Board of Health in Hannibal, Missouri, it certifies that Laughlin had practiced midwifery for a period of ten years and was therefore legally authorized to practice in the state. Laughlin received her certificate at Powell, Missouri, on January 1, 1885.
Today midwifery is an internationally recognized profession. The American College of Nurse-Midwives includes the primary health care of women and their newborn children. A Certified Nurse-Midwife (CNM) is a woman who is educated in nursing and midwifery, who possesses certification according to the requirements of the American College of Nurse-Midwives.
The Nurse-Midwifery practice manages women’s health care, focusing on pregnancy, childbirth, the postpartum period, care of the newborn, and the family planning and gynecological needs of women. The Certified Nurse-Midwife practices within a health care system that provides for consultation, collaborative management or referral as indicated by the health status of the client.
Despite the evolution of medicine, Ozarks women continued to practice the healing arts that had been handed down from mother to daughter. Instilled in the women, they did whatever was necessary to care for their family and friends, in sickness and in health.
The herb garden was grown right alongside the vegetable garden. In the fields and woods native plants, trees, and flowers grew in abundance offering their healing properties for those who gathered and gleaned.
In this modern world, there are those who scoff at and become quite angry with the thought of people seeking holistic health and “folk,” “home,” or “natural” remedies. And of course, after doctors spend countless years of study and pay for it all, they do not want to hear of someone seeking backwoods cures.
Today herbs are a big industry. Herbal stores and natural food stores run a brisk business. Women have always known how to care for their own. I remember my grandmothers using herbs and plants to put a meal on the table and to heal what ailed us. And I am certainly proud to have found a Granny Woman in my family history and to have the certificate for Delpha Laughlin at the McDonald County Historical Society.
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References for this article come from online sources: Missouri History Museum: Genealogy and Local History Index; Missouri Medical College (http://digitalcommons.wustl.edu/missouri); an online workshop, “Herbal Lore and The Historic Medicinal Uses of Herbs”; a copy of Delpha Laughlin’s Midwife Certificate; and from the obituary of Nancy Johnson from the Wheaton Journal on DVD, courtesy of the MO Historical Society.