Visiting The Dittrick Museum: A Fascinating Peek into the History of Childbirth & Contraception

Contributor Deena Blumenfeld takes a field trip to a history museum that fills the cup of those that love medical anthropology and the lore of the practice of midwifery and obstetrics in the recent (and not so recent) past.  She shares her experience and a review of her trip to the Dittrick Museum in Cleveland. Have you been there?  Have you been to other museums and exhibits that would be of interest to birth professionals?  If so, we would love a review from you!  – Sharon Muza, Community Manager, Science & Sensibility.

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© Deena Blumenfeld

My love for all things pregnancy and childbirth extends beyond teaching my classes and guiding my students so they may give birth and parent confidently. I’ve always been a history buff. I believe that to truly understand why society works in the way that it does; we need to know from whence we came. This holds true for how we care for women during pregnancy and childbirth.

Last month, my love of history took me to the Dittrick Medical History Center at Case Western University. More specifically, I went to see their exhibits on contraception and childbirth. I was very excited to make the almost three hour drive from my home in Pittsburgh to Cleveland to view their collections. As it turns out, it was well worth my travel time.

The building itself is a most appropriate setting for a medical museum. It was built in the 1920s and adorned with marble and hardwood furniture of the period. Upon walking in, it has that perfectly evocative scent of old wood, metal and gently decaying books. There is a perceptible reverence of the items contained within held by all who walk its halls.

© Deena Blumenfeld

© Deena Blumenfeld

I was met at the museum by co-curators Catherine Osborn and Brandy Schillace.**Bios below Catherine was kind enough to give me a private tour of the collections. I found Catherine to be extremely knowledgeable and passionate about not just the material objects in the collections but about women’s reproductive health and well-being. Her professionalism and enthusiasm came through with every word that she uttered. Chief curator James Edmonson was not available during my visit.

As we made our way through the exhibit, Re-conceiving Birth: Our Shared Entrance to the World Stage, my heart skipped a beat upon seeing the breadth of the collection. The collection is focused on the tools of childbirth, including obstetrical forceps, birthing chairs and medications used in the past. The collection does not include any preserved specimens wet, plasticized or otherwise. It is an instrument collection, not a pathology collection. As it is housed within the university, it is also used for teaching.

The collection itself is unique among medical museums because it focuses on reproductive health. It tells the stories which are often left out of history. On one wall, we viewed the discord between medically trained midwives and lay midwives in Ohio in the late 19th to early 20th century including the legal issues that they faced. The documentation was extensive. I noted that the same discord exists between certified nurse midwives and certified professional midwives today. The argument regarding certification, training and continuing education hasn’t changed in more than 100 years. To see the origins of this conflict in black and white was stark. I was left wondering if those on both sides of the issue fully know the origins of the debate in which they currently engage.

The majority of the collection comes from local physicians and other collectors in Ohio. With this local focus, the curators are able to go in depth into the provenance of each piece. The curators also have detailed records of the mothers who gave birth in the local communities. There are ledgers on view from different time periods that show the use of medications, such as ether, in labor as well as forceps deliveries and cesarean sections.

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© Deena Blumenfeld

I give the curators credit for not shying away from the rather unpleasant looking fetal extraction tools. For those unfamiliar, these are used when there has been a fetal demise and the mother’s life is at risk as well. The tools are brutal in their visage, yet before the advent of hand washing and aseptic medicine, their use was generally safer than cesarean birth where it was likely that the mother would not survive due to infection or hemorrhage. Our forbearers valued the mother’s life over that of the fetus. It was believed that a mother could have future children and that she needed to care for her existing brood so her life was always chosen over that of the fetus’ life. Modern society values the life of the fetus over that of the mother. However, that topic is another post entirely.

Tucked behind the exhibit on childbirth is the Percy Skuy Collection on the History of Contraception.  The Dittrick has consulted with Planned Parenthood to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the collection. This collection has information on contraception from ancient times through modern day, with a primary focus on the 20th century.

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© Deena Blumenfeld

Over the generations, humanity has tried many things to limit family size and allow women to gain control over their fertility. Most were unsuccessful due to a lack of knowledge. The unsuccessful and sometimes harmful methods included douches, Lysol, lemons as cervical caps, a juice glass and many more.

To be presented with the extraordinary lack of knowledge of the female reproductive system, including menstruation and ovulation, was both enlightening and disheartening. Our great-grandmothers and grandmothers likely did not have any insight into how their cycles worked or how to prevent an unwanted pregnancy and their physicians were of little help.

That said, The Dittrick does has a number of contraceptive methods on display that were successful – condoms, diaphragms, cervical caps, IUDs and the pill.

The IUD collection is impressive. I was startled to see just how many different styles of IUDs have been in use over the years. Each IUD is a work of art in and of itself. Well, minus the infamous Dalkon Shield, though. it too is on exhibit. The IUDs are arranged such that the viewer can see at a glance the variety and the artistry of the devices.

The contraception collection is comprehensive not just in the number and diversity of the items on display but also by placing these items within their social context. The items do not stand alone. They are accompanied by advertising, magazine covers and engaging descriptive placards. The careful arrangement of the items, with the occasional tongue-in-cheek humor (i.e. Condom Man comic book), helps the viewer travel chronologically from ancient times through modern.

Beyond these two collections, there are collections on infections disease and vaccinations, microscopes, forensics and more.

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© Deena Blumenfeld

In summary, both the childbirth and the contraception collections are well worth your time as is the museum as a whole. The Dittrick is expanding its reach into the community with its lecture series “Conversations”. You can find the recorded talks on their YouTube site. The most recent talk is by Jacqueline Wolf,From Ether to Epidural: Obstetric Anesthesia in Historic, Medical, and Social Context“. I happen to be in the middle of reading Wolf’s book, Deliver Me from Pain: Anesthesia and Birth in America and am thoroughly enjoying it.

The museum is a perfect day trip. I enjoyed my time there immensely. I fully intend to make a second visit with my children in the near future. Their website provides more information as to how to visit, upcoming talks and more. They also have a blog for informative reading on pieces in their collection.  You can follow them on TwitterInstagram or YouTube as well.

You might also enjoy reading a previous book review I wrote on childbirth history and Lamaze: “Lamaze: An International History” – Breath Control: The Rise and Decline of Psychoprophylaxis.

About the The Dittrick Museum Co-Curators

Brandy Schillace, PhD, works as Research Associate and Public Engagement for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History (Case Western Reserve University) and Managing Editor of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, a cross-cultural medical anthropology journal. Brandy also serves as Co-PI of an NEH-funded digital humanities project, How Medicine Became Modern (Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum).  She directs and speaks for CONVERSATIONS, a series of then-and-now history of medicine talks and EXCHANGES, a similar series for the Global Center for Health Innovation, Cleveland, Ohio. Brandy has been an invited speaker for the University at Buffalo, University College of Dublin, Manchester University, the New York Academy of Medicine, Little Atoms Radio and various podcasts, and TEDxCLE. Her recent books include DEATH’S SUMMER COAT, exploring cultural approaches to death and dying (E&T UK, Pegasus US), and the co-edited collection UNNATURAL REPRODUCTIONS, on “monstrous” birth across time and genre (Cambria).

Catherine Osborn, MA is a PhD student in medical anthropology at Case Western Reserve University whose research interests focus on historical and modern uses of technology to mediate childbirth and fertility. As a Research Assistant at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History, Catherine recently curated an exhibit on 19th century childbirth as part of the museum’s Re-Conceiving Birth gallery. She also serves as the Editorial Associate at the anthropology journal, Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry.

About Deena Blumenfeld

Deena Blumenfeld head shotDeena Blumenfeld RYT, RPYT, LCCE is a certified Yoga instructor at the 200 hr level, a certified Khalsa Way™ Prenatal Yoga instructor and a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator. She is also a mom of two – a son, born via c-section and a daughter, her VBAC. She is an active member of the local ICAN chapter and a member of the Coalition for Improving Maternity Services. Deena is also the owner of Shining Light Prenatal Education, where she teaches prenatal yoga, childbirth education, breastfeeding and much more. Deena’s newest project is The Silent Mother: Esoteric and Historical Gravidity and Parturition.

2 Comments

you want the rest of the d

January 14, 2016 07:00 AM by A Private Tour of The Dittrick Museum
you want the rest of the details? I wrote a piece for Science & Sensibility, Lamaze?s professional blog, regarding my trip to The Dittrick. Read [?]

This is my favorite S&S post.

February 8, 2016 07:00 AM by blusafe
This is my favorite S&S post.

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