Mother and Child Were Saved: The Memoirs (1693-1740) of the Frisian Midwife

The notebook of the Frisian midwife, Vrouw Schrader, is one of the most exciting books which has come into my hands in recent years. This translation makes this important work available now to the English-speaking audience, although we’ll have to wait a few more years for the rest of Vrouw Schrader’s voluminous writings to be published in English. The largest part of her notebook, which contains more than 3000 records of births she attended, was published in Dutch as recently as 1984.

These memoirs are a collection she wrote down near the end of her life of what she deemed to be her most remarkable cases, including abnormal presentations, multiple births, congenital abnormalities, cases of placenta previa, artificial deliveries, and maternal and infant deaths.

Her statistics are remarkable in many ways: she records only 20 maternal deaths (5 — 7%), amazing, since we know that she was often regarded as the last resort and was asked to help in already lost cases. When the already lost cases are excluded, the remaining maternal deaths in the practice of Vrouw Schrader amount to 14 in 3017 births (4.6%), a very low number for her times.

Vrouw Schrader, like Louise Bourgeois and Justina Siegemundin, discovered on her own how to deal with placenta previa. “All three midwives came to the conclusion that the best way to handle these extremely dangerous situations consists of delivery the woman as soon as possible.” Frau Siegemundin did this by piercing the placenta with a needle to drain away the amniotic fluid, while Schrader and Louise Bourgeois concluded they had to remove the placenta first and perform a version and extraction immediately after that. Vrouw Schrader encountered her first placenta previa on her 661 st case and lost the mother. Almost exactly six hundred births later, she had her second placenta previa, executed her plan and saved the mother. The child had been dead for some days. All in all, she dealt with ten cases of complete placenta previa and only lost two mothers, one early in her series and the other when she was in her mid-eighties. Both these cases are mentioned in the Memoirs.

The book is heavy reading, since these are the most memorable (which often means the most complicated) births out of the total 3060. In her other writings, she gives the history of Rinke, wife of Jackop Dronrip, who gave birth before their wedding to a healthy child in 1700, another healthy child in 1703 (after their marriage), another healthy child early in 1706 followed by another healthy child later that same year another healthy child in 1708 and twin girls, both in complete breech presentation in 1711. All these births were considered too unremarkable to deserve mention in her Memoirs.

It is significant that in only 4% of all the births were some kind of interference with manual manipulations necessary. In more than 95% the birth process was spontaneous.

“Thereupon in my eighty-fourth year of old age in my empty hours I sat and thought over what miracles The Lord had performed through my hands to unfortunate, distressed women in childbirth. So I decided to take up the pen in order to refresh once more my memory, to glorify and make great God Almighty for his great miracles bestowed on me. Not me, but You oh Lord be the honor, the glory till eternity. And also in order to alert my descendants so that they can still become educated.”

The first birth she attended is recorded in the Memoirs, and it was certainly no picnic:

“1693 on 9 January fetched to Jan Wobes’ wife, Pittie, in Hallum. A very heavy labour. Came with his face upwards. A dangerous birth for the child and very difficult for me. The afterbirth had to be pulled loose. But everything well.” (The notebook mentions that Schrader was called at five o’clock in the morning to the labour. With God’s ‘grace and help,’ Schrader delivered a boy).

The third birth she attended gives an idea of the harsh circumstances she had to deal with in travelling long distances in the winter:

“1693 on Shrove Tuesday (26 February) in the evening I was fetched for the very first journey in my life to Wijns to a widow whose husband was called Chlas Jansen, in terrible weather, stormy wind, hard frost. The three of us traveled by sleigh over the ice. The wind blew so hard that one could not stand. Pieces of ice got stuck in my legs, so that blood dripped into my hose. And came at last by sleigh to Wijns, three hours going;

Hilary Marland
Rodopi, Amsterdam