I was standing on the second floor of Surgeons’ Hall in Edinburgh waiting for my film crew to begin rolling for my upcoming documentary, Medicine’s Dark Secrets, when I spied a chair (left) in the corner. At that point in the day, I was exhausted and my attention to detail was diminishing with each passing second. Heartened by the sight of a chair, I quickly made my way towards my desired rest stop. Just as I began my descent into blissful comfort, however, I noticed a sign with big bold lettering: Museum Object: Please DO NOT SIT!
Just seconds before plopping my full weight down onto an antique chair, I awkwardly manoeuvred myself back into a standing position and looked around to make sure no one had seen my faux pas.
Upon closer inspection, I realised how obvious my mistake had been. This was no ordinary chair. It had a semi-circle cut from the seat, and looked tremendously uncomfortable. Indeed, I’d have to sit with my legs straddling either side of this awkward contraption to even remain balanced on it.
This was an 18th-century birthing chair.
Today, the idea of giving birth while sitting upright in a wooden chair may seem torturous. But long before delivery rooms, stirrups, forceps and foetal monitors, a woman gave birth at home in a chair with the aid of her midwife and other female friends, relatives and neighbours. These women were known as the ‘gossips’, for they spread the word to all the women in the community when another went into labour. The ‘gossips’ supported the mother-to-be during this time by praying with her, preparing special foods, and helping the midwife with any other menial tasks that needed doing.
When the time came, the pregnant woman would be propped up in the birthing chair. The midwife would sit below her, ready to catch the baby, while other women supported and comforted her from above. After the delivery, the exhausted mother would then be lead back to her bed, which remained unsullied from the birth itself.
Overtime, birthing became the purview of the medical community. Midwives were replaced by male-midwives (the precursor to the modern-day obstetrician), who introduced forceps into the delivery. Birthing chairs were modified to accommodate these changes. Take, for example, the one on the left. The arm and foot rests on this wooden chair could be adjusted for the mother’s comfort; and (most importantly), the back could fold down, converting it into a bed or an operating table—a necessary feature if forceps were to be used.
Birthing chairs were coveted pieces, and often passed down from generation to generation as family heirlooms. Little by little, however, the hospital became the locale of birth and eventually the chairs were discarded.
That said, many examples still exist today in museums around the world. Thinking back on the one in Edinburgh, I am comforted by the sign with its big, bold letters. Clearly, I was not the first to try to sit in the birthing chair; and I doubt I will be the last.