‘This collection comprises primarily personal papers originally deposited at the Royal College of Midwives, now held at the RCOG. It includes case registers, pupil case books, notebooks, diaries, photographs and printed material, relating to the experiences of midwives and how childbirth has changed throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
generous with her knowledge and her praise, last teaching from her wheelchair
at an international conference in 2016. She inspired two generations of
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.
Mavis Kirkham February 2019
Mary Cronk, midwife, born 29 October 1932, died 21 December 2018.
‘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.
Wellcome Collection image: Madonna and child showing breast feeding. Milan. Musee Poldi-Pezzolige
In 1982 Chloe Fisher, who has dedicated much of her life to educating midwives and women on infant feeding and to supporting breast feeding mothers, published a historical review of modern breastfeeding ‘management’ and the origins of certain restrictive practices which prevailed for a considerable time during the twentieth century. While contemporary medical experts were advocating limiting the duration of initial breast feeds and no night feeds, at the end of this paper Chloe highlights the words of those who challenged such notions but whose work had hitherto been largely unrecognised. The following is a quotation from the concluding paragraphs of her paper:
‘Early in this decade [the 1950s] two well designed research projects (Illingworth and Stone, 1952: Newton, 1952) came to the conclusion that removing the restrictions would aid the establishment of lactation and reduce the incidence of problems. Other work led the author of a comprehensive history of infant feeding to say, of self-demand feeding,“When this regime becomes universally adopted, as surely it will, so the last chapter on the history of infant feeding will be concluded” (Wickes, 1953). That was in 1953!
In the developed world, slavish adherence to the earlier theories probably did as much harm to human lactation as the promotion of artificial feeds. But that we should have been guilty of taking these ideas to the developing countries, where artificial feeding can cause gross malnutrition, if not death, should make us pause for serious thought. How did it take another 20 years for the hoped-for improvements to begin to occur here? There is no simple answer, but a large contribution to the delay must have come from the rapid increase in hospital confinements, as it was in hospitals that these practices were firmly established. The rapid and happy changes that are now taking place owe much to the insistence of the many mothers who wish to breastfeed their babies. For the few professionals who are deeply concerned to increase breastfeeding, both for the sake of the mothers and their babies, exciting and rewarding times lie ahead.’
The UNICEF Baby Friendly Initiative World Breast Feeding Week (August 1st–7th 2018) ended recently. In the UK, the week was preceded by a sensational Channel 4 film in the Dispatches series, ‘Breast feeding uncovered’, which explored the experience of breast feeding mothers today through the eyes of a breast feeding investigative journalist. It would appear that, while many women are now motivated to breast feed, society’s attitude towards feeding in public and the recognition of its benefits to babies and families and ultimately to society, could be better.
J C Allotey 09/08/18
Fisher, C. (1982). Mythology in midwifery – or “making breastfeeding scientific and exact”. Oxford Medical School Gazette, Trinity Term, 30-33.
Illingworth, R.S., and D.G.H. Stone (1952). Self demand feeding in a maternity unit. Lancet, 1, 683.
Newton, N. (1952). Nipple pain and nipple damage. Journal of Pediatrics, 41, 411
Wickes, I.G. (1953). A history of infant feeding. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 128, 151
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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.
Wouldn’t it be timely to compile a gallery of as many former midwifery ‘training’ school badges as possible, before they are lost? Former schools of midwifery often produced their own badges, sometimes with interesting coats of arms or mottos on them. We have made a start with this: members can view them in our image library. Has this tradition of awarding badges been continued by contemporary higher education institutions? …