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Tale of Two Midwives

Duluth midwife Haldora Olson. (Image: Zenith City)

Doing Everything Right

Haldora Olson and her family emigrated from Iceland to the United States in 1889 when she was 44 years old, settling immediately in Duluth. Like many midwives of the era, Olson inherited her profession from her mother, but she had more knowledge than most: Olson was a “graduate midwife,” having studied obstetrics at the Iceland School of Midwifery.

In those tumble-loose days of medicine, becoming a doctor or a graduate midwife might mean anything from “I attended a seminar” to “I went to a medical college.” In Haldora Olson’s case, however, it is clear she took pains to be a professional of the highest order.

In 1891, Minnesota lawmakers William W. Mayo of Rochester, Dr. John Bel of Minneapolis and Dr. Werner Hemstead of Brainerd spearheaded an effort to pass legislation requiring the registration of midwives. As soon as Olson learned English, she was among the first wave to register. Around 1905, she enlarged her home at 329 North 58th Avenue West, making it a private hospital with 12 beds. She was the first to get her hospital certified by the city health department.

To comply with laws disallowing forceps or surgery (including suturing) by midwives, Olson invented an “obstetrical appliance”—a ribbon meant to go around the jaw of an infant in the birth canal, with loops for the midwife to pull the baby out. (Her device was patented in 1900.)

To comply with laws disallowing forceps by midwives, Olson invented an “obstetrical appliance”—a ribbon meant to go around the jaw of an infant in the birth canal, with loops for the midwife to pull the baby out. (Image: Public Domain)

The Duluth News Tribune published an article celebrating Olson’s hospital and achievements in 1907, extolling its “marvelous success and popularity.” It was illustrated with a dignified portrait of Olson and a large photo of a bevy of chubby, healthy-looking babies. The article reported that Olson had  attended 1,100 births in 14 years and had “built up the largest obstetrical profession at the head of the lakes.”

Olson was active in West Duluth’s Ladies’ Aid and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She also advocated strongly for Duluth’s wealthy to join her in building a bigger, better hospital for women. In 1911, the News Tribune publicized her quest for “a maternity hospital where worthy poor women and wayward girls can be taken care of during illness at a reasonable cost.” It read in part:

…the majority of cases which come under her care are those of women and girls who are financially unable to meet the greater expenses charged at larger institutions, that many of these come from districts where proper medical aid or care during illness cannot be secured…. She invites the closest scrutiny of people who might become interested in assisting in the project and has secured the aid of Rev. S. A. Jamieson and Alderman L. A. Barnes to act as trustees for any funds subscribed towards this end.

Despite all her education and professionalism, Haldora Olson could not stay on the right and proper side of the law forever.

As World War I dawned, various public policies involving infant welfare emerged. One of the most difficult policies to implement and enforce became the requirement for birth registration. People just didn’t see why the government needed to know when and how another citizen was born, and in fact, it seemed clear to most that the reasoning behind registration was in part due to the administrative difficulties encountered by a government in wartime. Should there be another war after The War to End All Wars, the government needed to know where to find its eligible young men.

Both doctors and midwives got in trouble with the new requirement that they keep a registry of all births, noting the time, place (ward and street), the child’s “sex and color,” and the name and residence of each parent. Not only must physicians and midwives keep such records (which many were not accustomed to doing), but they were also required to provide a copy of these records to the board of health within five days of the birth.

Newspapers at the time frequently reported doctors failing to comply with the law, or keeping shoddy records. In 1917, Olson was arrested for “alleged failure to comply with the law.” She had filed a certificate fourteen days late. Olson was released on bail, and later paid a fine. Public Safety Commissioner Bernard Silberstein was reported to have said, “It is certain that the department will do everything in its power to safeguard the public health at all times.”

Haldora Olson died in 1921 at the age of 66. While there were brief abortive efforts to create a separate charity-funded maternity hospital on Jefferson Street, run by the wealthy ladies of the East End, Olson was never, as far as can be determined, invited to preside over its administration. What happened to her private hospital is unknown, and the building no longer exists.

At the time of Olson’s death, she was a widow living with her son Oliver and his family. He was a physician in private practice. It seems she had no daughters to follow in her footsteps. She is buried next to her husband in Oneota Cemetery.

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.