Mary Cronk, who has died aged 86, was held in high regard by the mothers she cared for and the many midwives to whom she was an inspiration and a role model.
Mary came from a strong radical tradition. Her father was a Clydeside shop steward and her mother worked for the Co-operative Society in Gourock, Scotland. Mary’s outlook was radical: she wanted to understand how things worked socially and physiologically, and she had instinctive empathy with those at the bottom of the pile.
Mary trained first as a nurse at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, later moving to undertake midwifery training at Queen Charlotte’s in London. Her passions were midwifery and sailing. While living in London she joined the Corinthian Sailing Club where she met Joe, who she married in 1957. They sailed their boat, handbuilt by Joe, to the Mediterranean and lived on it until their third child was born.
On returning to the UK Mary worked as a domiciliary (community) midwife. She politely stood up for the women in her care, famously challenging consultant obstetricians who required all “their patients” to have episiotomies. She also supported her less brave colleagues who accidentally dropped the scissors rather than perform unnecessary episiotomies and subverted hospital policies to help mothers by the many other practices she labelled “doing good by stealth”.
In 1991 she left the NHS and worked for many years as an independent midwife, supporting women whose decisions around their birth did not fit with increasingly rigid NHS policies. She became an expert in breech and twin birth at a time when obstetricians were opting for caesarean section in such cases. She was highly skilled but not cavalier in her approach and subsequent research has shown the wisdom and safety of her practice.
Mary was loved by the women she cared for. Many women booked her for each of their births and she attended the births of many women whom she had herself helped into the world. She travelled great distances to support mothers who sought her out for her skills, her kindness and her deep respect for childbearing women.
Though never employed or qualified as a midwife teacher, Mary became one of the most famous midwife teachers in the world. She told stories, illustrated by adopting the maternal position required, or getting someone else to, as arthritis limited her mobility. She demonstrated clearly with a doll and pelvis. She used pictures in a way that enabled us to really see the mechanisms of birth. Anyone who attended the “Day at the Breech”, or heard her talking about twin or breech births appreciated the clarity of her explanation. She had so many memorable turns of phrase and her useful phrases which parents might use in answer to professional “advice” were wonderful in highlighting where power lies and where it should lie.
She was not a natural writer and her writing was a challenge to edit. Her gifts were those of someone who really understood the physiology of birth and could explain it clearly. She was a skilled observer, a good listener and her practical curiosity was phenomenal. She was of the great and ancient tradition of midwives who learned and taught as they practiced. Such midwives are now very rare. Yet her teaching demonstrated the error of the long held assumption that midwives without higher education must be ignorant.
She was generous with her knowledge and her praise, last teaching from her wheelchair at an international conference in 2016. She inspired two generations of midwives.
As Mary fearlessly supported mothers, she recognised the need for strong midwifery and lay representation on the statutory bodies which regulate midwifery. She was a midwifery board member of the English National Board, served on committees for the United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting, and was a member of Council of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) from 1999 – 2003. In 1998 she was awarded the MBE for her services to midwifery; she had great heart-searching as to whether to accept the honour and did so because “it is really for midwifery”.
Mary is survived by her husband Joe, her son Peter, her daughter Maggie, grandchildren Louis, Phoebe, Georgia and Ella and great-grandchildren Milo and Madelene. Her son John predeceased her.
Mary Cronk, midwife, born 29 October 1932, died 21 December 2018.
John Rylands Library, University of Manchester
Thursday 31st January, 2.00 – 3.00 p.m.
Delve into our amazing 17th to 19th Century midwifery archive; be amazed at the detailed drawings and accounts from the time.
Free event: no need to book
‘There is no formal memorial to Mrs Manley’s near half-century of service to the people of Whitby. Yet her diary, a veritable gold mine for the genealogist and for the social historian, remains with us, enormously enriching our understanding of a vital aspect of a bygone age.’ (p. 34)
With acknowledgements to MIDIRS, we are pleased to provide online access to a paper about the Whitby midwife Mistress Katharine Manley, whose diary can be found in the museum in Whitby. The diary documents her 44 years of experience from 1720 to 1764.
If you are a De Partu member, please enter the members’ area, where there is a range of resources and links on the history of childbirth.
To access the area, you will need to log in (right sidebar) with your email address as the username and the password which was sent to you when you joined. Please note that new passwords are issued each year following renewal of subscriptions.
Sworn midwife: Mistress Katharine Manley of Whitby, her work and world
Written by Dr Jean Donnison and published in MIDIRS Midwifery Digest in 2007 17(1):25-34.
A Life’s Work – Midwives! On BBC iPlayer Radio 4!
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Royal College of Physicians Medicinal plants lectures and the Poynter Lecture of the British Society for the History of Medicine
Monday 11th June 1.30pm-7.00pm
Royal College of Physicians, 11 St Andrews Place, Regents Park, London, NW1 4LE
Plants in Anaesthesia by Dr David Wilkinson, former consultant anaesthetist, St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and historian of anaesthesia
A history of plant products used in general and local anaesthesia, including curare, opium, cocaine – and lettuce!
Unicorn Horn and London Treacle: by Tony Cartwright, retired pharmaceutical regulatory consultant
The story of the College’s Pharmacopeia Londinensis on its 400th anniversary
Poynter Lecture of the British Society for the History of Medicine, 6.00pm:
The Doctor as Collector by Dr Simon Chaplin, Director of Culture and Society at the Wellcome Trust, and previously Head of the Wellcome Library
The price of £10 allows entry to all the lectures on this day, the garden tour and wine reception – booking is now open.
Trinity College, Oxford
May 5th 2018
This study day is part of the Knowledge Exchange Partnership between The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), the De Partu History of Childbirth Group, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The day will focus on the history of midwives’ and obstetricians’ professional education and ways of working together, and aspects of the history of parent education. The programme will include several PhD student presentations.
Details of the programme, and of nearby parking and accommodation, are available on the Events page.
Books for sale
De Partu is currently holding an online sale of secondhand and rare books to raise funds for the Jean Donnison History of Childbirth Student Essay Prize. They include potentially useful primary and secondary sources for historical research which are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, some being out of print. The prices have been checked, and aim to be competitive. All books may be purchased from Amazon via the De Partu ‘store’.
|Rossini, Gill (2014)
A history of adoption in England and Wales: 1850-1961
Barnsley: Pen and Sword
“This thoughtful book is well worth reading for anyone interested in social history”
Reviewed by Dr Lindsay Reid
Other book reviews