Unassisted Childbirth in the 1950′s
by Laura Shanley
When I gave birth to my first child unassisted in 1978, I assumed I was one of the few women in the Western world who had actually chosen to give birth this way. In fact, fourteen years would pass before I would realize that the unassisted childbirth movement was alive and well in this country and had been since the 1950′s.
From author Marilyn Moran I learned of the existence of The League of Liberated Women, a group of women in the 50′s and 60′s who chose to give birth at home without medical assistance. Its founder, Patricia Carter, author of the book Come Gently Sweet Lucina, was quite the character. Unlike Marilyn, who was a believer in “husband/wife childbirth,” Pat preferred to give birth completely alone. After downing a few whisky highballs, she would retire to her bedroom, shut the door, and catch her baby. As I would later learn from reading her book, several unhappy hospital experiences – including one in which a nurse accidentally gave Pat another woman’s baby – led her to decide that unassisted birth was the safest and most satisfying choice for the modern-day woman.
Unfortunately, Pat died before I had the chance to meet her. However, in the past few years I’ve been able to locate several of her friends and family members who were kind enough to send me newspaper clippings about Pat’s births. I’ve taken the liberty of typing them up so that Pat’s legacy will not be lost. I hope you will find them as interesting as I have.
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Mother of 7 Gets Ready to Bear her 8th Alone
TITUSVILLE, Fla., 1955 (AP) – Mrs. Ellerbe W. Carter expects her eighth baby in April. As usual, she plans to deliver it herself.
The dark-haired, blue-eyed woman, now past 40, has brought five of her children into the world unattended. Her oldest child is 17. Her youngest is two.
Briefly, Mrs. Carter’s system consists of taking “a few whisky highballs” to relax and have her baby. Then she resumes her housework. Mrs. Carter says she enjoys “the rapture of childbirth as nature intended it.” She added: “There is no agony, no screaming pain. There is about a half a minute of acute discomfort, but not nearly as bad as having a tooth pulled.”
Her husband, 71, a retired Army general, is a member of the City Council and president of the Titusville Lions Club. He also owns a realty company.
Mrs. Carter read many books on natural childbirth before attempting to deliver her own babies and she “blesses” their doctor authors.
When Mrs. Carter is aware that the birth of a child is due, she mixes a few whisky highballs and goes into a bedroom alone to relax and wait. When the child is born she gets up instantly, ties the cord, bathes the baby, then shows the newcomer to its brothers and sisters and her husband.
After the baby has been properly welcomed by the family, Mrs. Carter gets breakfast or whatever meal is due, and goes about her other daily household chores as usual.
She writes poetry, conducts a free public library at her home, and is a member of several women’s clubs. Mrs. Carter is a vegetarian. She attributes her energy and good health to her meatless diet.
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Halts Chores for Hour, Gives Birth to Child Unaided
TITUSVILLE, Fla., May 19, 1955 (AP) – Mrs. Ellerbe W. Carter, Sr., put aside her household chores for an hour today while she gave birth to a daughter, her sixth child born without a doctor in attendance.
She got up immediately to tie the umbilical cord and bathe and dress the baby. When the child was asleep she went into the living room to dust furniture.
Mrs. Ellerbe, who is in her 40s, called her 71-year-old husband, Gen. Ellerbe Carter, Sr., formerly of Louisville, Ky., and asked him to telephone a friend, Mary Lou Culbertson, a writer for the Daytona Beach News-Journal. The general remained in his real estate office.
Mary Lou hurried to the home and arrived a moment after the birth. The only other person there was Ruthie Lee, a housemaid, who became so excited she was given the afternoon off.
Mrs. Carter was “absolutely beautiful” and calm as she tied the umbilical cord and washed and dressed her newborn, blue-eyed daughter, said Mary Lou. “She took a drink of whisky just before the birth, but for relaxation which she believes necessary for natural birth,” said the news writer. “When I left her home she was dusting a piano, the baby asleep in its crib.”
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Unassisted Mother Delivers 7th Baby
TITUSVILLE, Fla., Aug. 20, 1956 (UP) – Mrs. Ellerbe W. Carter sipped several highballs, then delivered her seventh child unassisted at 1:20 this morning.
At 9 a.m. she was back at work in her husband’s real estate office with her 6-pound son at her side.
The birth took place while her three-year-old son and infant daughter slept in a bed a few feet away.
“It’s the way nature intended babies to be born,” explained Mrs. Carter, an attractive housewife in her early 40′s. “And it’s a wonderful experience.”
The slim, brown-haired woman is a strong believer in natural childbirth and has written several articles on it.
“It’s easy if you don’t let yourself gain too much weight,” she said, “and the whisky helps you relax.”
Mrs. Carter, who normally weighs 102 pounds, said she allows herself to gain only five pounds in pregnancy.
Her husband, a 72-year-old retired Army general from Louisville, Ky., beamed proudly after being awakened and told the news.
“You know, it’s quite an unusual thing for a man my age to be a father,” he said. Carter is husky, gray-haired and very active.
This was the ninth child for the couple. The first two were born in the hospital and the rest Mrs. Carter had unassisted. Mrs. Carter said she would name the baby William Douglas. She said she took the infant to the office this morning because “it’s better to have him with me so I can give him better care. Besides, if I left him at home, the other kids would probably maul him.”
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(Note from Laura: This next passage was actually written by Pat. It appeared in her unassisted birth newsletter, The Wellborn Wag, in 1961.)
Delightfully emancipated is Mrs. Dean Auginbaugh, 17, of South Bend, Indiana. According to an Associated Press report, this teen-aged mother read twenty books on parturition before deciding that she and her child would have a better chance of avoiding suffering and mutilation in her own home, unhandicapped by disturbing attendants and dystocia producing procedures of present-day perverted professional practice.
In an article under by-line of Effie Alley in the Chicago American, June 11, the reporter states that the youthful parents were roundly condemned by Chicago’s leading obstetricians. The doctors quoted in the account spoke learnedly of unattended birth. Curious point, in as much as they were all male.
Pity they have no way of knowing the difference between the tranquil, private birth and the disturbed public birth. Unless surgery be indicated, a physician is as unnecessary in childbirth as he would be on the honeymoon. Orchids to Kay and Dean Auginbaugh!
Click here to read more newspaper accounts of unassisted births in the 1950′s.
Click here to read an unassisted birth story that was published in Child and Family Digest in 1954.
Click here to read newspaper accounts of unassisted births in the 1960′s.