Recent acquisition! This cup and saucer set c. 1818 commemorates the death of Princess Charlotte after giving birth. The heir to the throne of England labored for 50 hours without intervention before delivering a large, stillborn son in 1817. Charlotte’s physicians came from the non-interventionist school of #obstetrics, meaning they used no forceps to assist or hasten the child’s stalled birth. Further, no destructive instruments (those that would have sacrificed the child to spare Charlotte) would have been used because of infant’s royal status. In fact, physicians attempted to resuscitate the stillborn baby, thinking he was in a state of “suspended animation” before attending to Charlotte’s delayed delivery of the placenta. This event forever changed the course of birth and delivery methods.
Who Decides, Who Delivers?
Prior to the 18th century in Britain, babies were delivered by midwives, women practitioners who had apprenticed under other women–or sometimes just an elder matron who had given birth many times herself. Then, suddenly, things began to shift. In a relatively short space of time, midwifery developed from the rare intervention of surgeons to a robust and nearly exclusive male practice. A confluence of events led to this shift, including changes in the “bodily and social event” of childbirth with the advent of lying-in hospitals, as well as changes in fashion, politics, and social structure.[i] Medical technology was the male calling card, so to speak. With the invention of the forceps, skilled surgeons (who were always men), could deliver children even in difficult or near-hopeless cases:
The more it was known [the surgeon] could deliver a living child, the less women would fear him; the less they feared him, the earlier they would call him; the earlier they called him, the more often he could deliver the child alive; and the more other this was so, the further it would be realized that he could achieve this.[ii]
Birth became a subject of medical science and of medical men, and by 1764, Queen Charlotte made William Hunter her royal obstetrician. The new age of obstetrics did not put an end to the birthing debate, however! Instead, two schools of thought arose–one that favored intervention by the obstetrician with the forceps, and one that favored non-intervention (letting nature take its course). Like Queen Charlotte, Princess Charlotte (her granddaughter) also had a physician obstetrician overseeing her pregnancy and birth–Sir Richard Croft. Unfortunately for Charlotte, Croft followed non-intervention methods and Charlotte and the baby both died.
Croft committed suicide, feeling that he had been responsible for two deaths (and royal deaths at that). Charolotte’s funeral attracted enormous crowds of mourners–and some have compared it to the national grief that followed the death of Princess Diana.[iii]. The tragedy and its response ushered in a new age of “rational intervention” including the use of stimuli (for contractions), blood transfusion, and anesthesia.[iii] For a period of time following, no one would have criticized a princess for preferring an obstetrician and the most advanced of medical tools!
Commemoration and Change
The death of Princess Charlotte was commemorated through the sale of inexpensive transfer-wear porcelain tea cups and saucers. It may seem morbid to us, but these pieces were popular and widely used, meaning the message was also widely transmitted. If you look close, this set features a weeping #Britannia, symbolizing how the country mourned the heir’s passing. In response to her death, physicians moved toward interventionist approaches to childbirth in attempt to prevent such mortality. Texts including David Davis’s Elements of Operative #Midwifery (1825) served as important guides on the use of instruments to expedite labor.
[i] Wilson, Adrian. The Making of Man-Midwifery. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995): 6.
About the blogger
Brandy Schillace is a medical humanist, literary scholar and writer of Gothic fiction. She is the Managing Editor for Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, a guest curator for Dittrick Museum, and a SAGES fellow for Case Western Reserve University (she has also worked as an assistant professor of literature at Winona State). She runs the Fiction Reboot and Daily Dose blogs, leads interdisciplinary conferences abroad for IDnet, and spends a lot of her time in museums and medical libraries.