Tennessee Mountain Stories

Midwife's Records

Last week we talked about the writings of Lottie Todd and I am amazed by the information we can glean from her simple journals.  According to the Reagan Foundation, the Reagan library contains, “over 60 million pages of documents, over 1.6 million photographs, a half million feet of motion picture film, tens of thousands of audio and video tape, and over 40,000 artifacts.”  How I wish I had a fraction of that information from my ancestors.  Unfortunately, that is not how most of us live our lives.  A politician at President Reagan’s level is constantly videoed, photographed and documented; for my ancestors I’m thrilled to have a handful of pictures, and a letter he wrote is a great treasure. 

I recently was absolutely blessed to read through sixty-five pages of official documents that once again told me so much more than their author could ever have imagined.   I’ve been researching Mrs. Gracie Todd, who faithfully served the women of Campground, Martha Washington, Clarkrange, Grimsley and Rinnie  as midwife and friend.  Gracie Todd was still “catching” babies in her late seventies and her grand-daughter shared these surviving documents from her career.

There are three booklets that were printed by the Tennessee Department of Health and labelled “Physician’s Record of Birth” and issued to Aunt Gracie (as she is very widely known).  These three span 1932 through 1937.  They are surely not an exhaustive record of her work during those years – in fact, there is a vast gap from 1934 through 1936.  These booklets contained birth certificate blanks with the right portion of the page being the mother’s copy and the left portion the physician’s receipt. 

Many pages are inexplicably blank, the baby’s name is almost never recorded and the location of the birth or address of parents is omitted.  Still, these are precious records that reveal a little glimpse of the lives of the community in the thirties. 

It’s hard to know what kind of statistics hospitals are keeping on us these days, but these forms recorded legitimacy, occupation of both father and mother, number of children of this mother and number of children of this mother now living.  They do not record any data on the baby such as length, weight or head circumference.    I can’t help but read these documents through my twenty-first century eyes when the first question is “how big” when a birth is announced.  My family has a small scale that my great-great grandmother bought with coupons from Arbuckle’s coffee for the express purpose of weighing her babies, and I am unaware that she ever served as a midwife however she had ten children of her own and she wanted to know their birth weights.  Perhaps that is an indicator that most midwives did not try to chart birth weights.

Nova Todd.jpg

I am also fascinated by the infant mortality rate as recorded here, as well as the age range for the mothers.  Again, from today’s perception, there are a number of very young mothers – one sixteen year old delivering her second child.  And women were successfully birthing babies well into their thirties and forties- one Matilda Lewis is shown at age forty-two having her eighth baby (and all eight were living).  In 1935, about five out of every one hundred babies would not survive, and maybe if I did the math, Aunt Gracie’s records would reflect the same percentage but just flipping through the pages, I’m amazed at how many mothers had six or eight children and all of them were living.  Of course, it’s hard to think about babies as statistics and I know the loss of any one is heart wrenching.  There are certainly a number of sheets showing one or two babies that didn’t make it; then there’s the record of twenty-nine year old Nova Todd’s 1932 delivery reflecting ten births with only two living.  I would like to note that these documents do not reflect the condition of the baby, whether or not this particular child survived.

We’ve talked before about the availability of medical care in this era and we know that hospitals were few and very far between.  So it isn’t hard to imagine how revered a good midwife would have been.  I wonder what women of the early nineteenth would have said had they realized how much safer they were in the hands of midwives.  You see, as more women went to hospitals to have their babies, the rate of both infant and maternal mortality sky rocketed.  Instead of caring for a single woman in labor, doctors were seeing many women.  Without a good understanding of germs and hygiene, they often introduced deadly infections.  Therefore, Aunt Gracie’s tender care, one mother at a time, resulted in page after page detailing healthy babies.

Finally, a note on the time.  She rarely annotates whether the time in a.m. or p.m.  I can’t help but wonder after labor which might have taken many hours, even spanning more than a day and night, perhaps morning and evening were blurred and relatively unimportant.