Giving Birth in Duluth, 1855–2015

The cover of St. Luke’s 1962 official report shows a delivery in the hospital’s new birthing suite. (Image: Duluth Public Library/St. Luke’s Hospital)

The Baby Boom

Following the end of Word War II, the baby boom that swept the nation did not miss Duluth. St. Luke’s listed 1,599 births in 1946, more than twice the 780 listed in 1937. Overcrowding led to St. Luke’s installing a Quonset hut on the sidewalk, but it was not used as a maternity ward. Fundraising drives often spoke of the need for additional, modern facilities. Newspaper articles of this era proudly show plastic bassinets in individual compartments in the nursery, or shining new delivery equipment. Hospitals placed an emphasis on cleanliness and sterile practices, right down to not allowing the father to hold his baby; new fathers were instead allowed to attend “showing” times for the babies and see their children through the nursery window twice a day. St. Luke’s 1957 hospital rules also requested that husbands avoid visiting during feeding hours. By this time, average hospital stays for new mothers were down to 4 to 5 days, and and some facilities offered classes on baby care and feeding.

In 1962 St. Luke’s opened a new maternity and delivery and labor room suite, expanding the ward’s capacity and adding air conditioning and “stain-proof vinyl tile” to the original 1920s ward. The 1962 Annual Report offers a surprising look into the mostly private world of birthing in the early ’60s. The cover features a color photo of a birth and the phrase “Life’s first momentous breath begins here…” At that time, most fathers had not been allowed to glimpse the inside of a delivery room or accompany their wife during a birth. The report includes photos of a nurse preparing formula, an expectant father waiting patiently, a woman who served coffee to expectant fathers, and a doctor treating a baby in an “isolette.” Birth was handled by doctors, with parents and female nurses playing only supporting roles.

In interviews, women who gave birth in Duluth in this era mention not knowing what to expect when they got to the hospital to deliver a baby; the process was apparently not often discussed with doctors or even friends.

However, changes were starting to happen. In May 1958 Ladies Home Journal printed an exposé titled “Journal Mothers Report on Cruelty in Maternity Wards” which included pages of letters written in by readers, some from Minnesota. The magazine’s editors emphasized that, “Until a generation ago, a normal childbirth was a natural, essentially happy event, attended by a husband and a kindly neighbor or two…. Now, childbirth has been turned into a medical mystery, conducted in secret.” Women shared horror stories about being left alone for hours in the delivery room, being strapped down with metal clamps so they couldn’t breathe, having their legs forced together to prevent birth until the doctor could arrive, and having their husbands excluded from the delivery room. The groundbreaking article called for investigations and changes.

By the 1970s, expectations and practices were still changing to include more involvement by fathers—and even mothers. In 1976, St. Luke’s began offering a “Stork Club” dinner to parents of new babies, complete with champagne, partly to help the new father to get used to his new family and, according to the News Tribune, to enjoy his “last peaceful meal for quite awhile.”

The process of giving birth in Duluth continued to follow a similar path to that of communities all over the U.S. By the 1980s, women in Duluth and around the country began a renewed interest by in having more “natural” and even home births. In Duluth, women could choose to have their babies at home with the help of a midwife from Shell Lake, Wisconsin. In 2003, Katie Sandell became the first Certified Nurse Midwife in Duluth, encouraged by a local mother to begin offering a home birth option. She and at least 3 other midwives now practice in Duluth today, offering home birth options to families.

In 2013, Duluth’s “first and only freestanding birth center,” the Morning Star Women’s Health and Birth Center, opened to provide women a place other than their home to have their babies with the help of midwives. It may be a first for the modern era, but it is essentially returning to a long tradition in the spirit of Sara Wheeler and Hepzibah Merritt and. Haldora Olson’s Private Hospital “for women expecting to be confined.” Having a baby remains an intensely personal experience, but if anything, the last century has taught us that the “modern” way is not always the best.

Guest contributor Gina Temple-Rhodes records oral histories for local non-profits. Her examination of birthing history began in 2011, when Birthing Ways Doula Connection hired her to interview women who had given birth from the 1930s to 1950s. She conducted in-depth historic research and sought out photos to further develop the project in 2013, funded by the Minnesota Historical Society and Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Recordings of her efforts are on file at the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections.

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Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.