Giving Birth in Duluth, 1855–2015

Hepzibah Merritt who, along with Sara Wheeler, delivered nearly every child born in Oneota from 1856 to the 1870s, when she and her husband Lewis left for Missouri; her sons stuck around and later opened the Mesabi Iron Range. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Story by Gina Temple-Rhodes
Story by Gina Temple-Rhodes

Life at the Head of the Lakes was hard enough in the 1850s, when Duluth and Superior were first established, but it was arguably more difficult for young women in their child-bearing years. When most of these women arrived they found rough conditions and very little assistance from doctors or knowledgeable women to help them through labor. If they were lucky, they had the help of another pioneer woman, acting in the role of midwife. Giving birth at the Head of the Lakes was often accompanied by tragedy as much as it was with joy. Over time, the risk of childbirth was reduced and the experience of having a baby in Duluth changed significantly.

Pioneer Births

The first birth in Superior ended in tragedy. Mrs. Rogers, age 17 (first name unrecorded), one of the first female settlers who arrived with her husband and brother, died in the spring of 1854 after giving birth to a baby. According to historian Walter Van Brunt, “There was no possibility of medical attendance…not even a woman whose hand might smooth her pillow, and mother and child died the same day. The funeral occurred on the 15th, Mr. Zachau bearing both bodies on a dog sled to the cemetery on Wisconsin Point.” The first recorded Duluth birth was that of Julia Wheeler in 1856. Sara Wheeler delivered the child with the help of Hepzibah Merritt, and together Mrs. Wheeler and Mrs. Merritt “presided at the birth of nearly every child born in Oneota” during the settlement’s first 30 years. [The first birth of a child of European descent at the Head of the Lakes, at Fond du Lac in 1836, apparently went well.]

The chances for surviving childbirth with a healthy baby grew as the settlements grew, with births attended to by female friends or family and eventually midwives and doctors. Until the 1880s all babies were born in homes or even boarding houses—there were no hospitals in Duluth until St. Luke’s opened in 1881, and the facility—12 beds in a former blacksmith’s shop—wasn’t likely much less comfortable than a home.

Home births at the turn of the century were often attended to by a doctor or, as an article from 1902 states, “only a midwife” [emphasis added]. Midwives had delivered babies for centuries, and Duluth’s large immigrant population may have felt more comfortable with these traditionally female birth attendants. Hiring a midwife was cheaper than hiring a doctor, and perhaps offered the benefit of speaking the immigrant’s first language rather than English. The first midwife appears in the business portion of the Polk City Directories for Duluth in 1888 with a consistent listing of about six to eight midwives every year, peaking in about 1915.

These midwives not only assisted woman with giving birth at home, but some offered a small maternity hospital in their home or another building. A 1907 Duluth News Tribune article about a “private hospital for women” run by midwife Haldora Olson at 329 North 58th Avenue West described the facility in glowing terms. Olson was described as the “oldest and most popular midwife at the head of the lakes” and had delivered at least 112 babies in 1907. Her “institution” is described as being “thoroughly modern…a private home for women expecting to be confined and affords each one all the comforts of home.”

Enter the Hospitals

Having babies at home was still considered the norm in Duluth (and throughout the U.S.) in the early 1900s. Duluth churches and physicians were building hospitals in Duluth, but these facilities were not immediately considered “normal “places to have a baby. When St. Luke’s opened in 1881, the majority of the patients were male and most suffered from physical injuries and typhoid fever or other contagious infections. Some families considered hospitals places where you went to die, and did not approach them for birth unless a serious complication developed. From 1881 to 1900, there were probably fewer than 50 births at St. Luke’s.

By the turn of the century, a few more mothers were going to the hospital to have their babies in Duluth. A “Report of St. Mary’s Hospital” for 1904 notes that there were 96 “normal obstetrical cases” in 1904 and the beginning of 1905. This change was happening all over the country, sometimes encouraged by doctors who wanted the ease of a central location for birth rather than needing to take streetcars or horses to women’s homes at all hours of the night and day. In some cases, hospitals encouraged hospital births, perhaps as a way to increase business or with a well-intentioned effort to offer a safer or more comfortable birth.

One historical hazard of birth was the feared and poorly-understood childbed fever (puerperal sepsis). new mother’s developed fevers that could kill them within a few days of giving birth. This could happen anywhere, but seemed to spread rapidly in larger hospitals. By the mid 1910s, it was better understood that sepsis was an infection that could be passed from an attendant’s dirty hands, and early forms of antibiotics could often save mothers. While hospitals were not always cleaner than a home (and indeed could offer dangerous germs), they were being marketed as a modern, safe alternative for those who could afford them.

A Duluth News Tribune article in July 1910 explained that mothers giving birth at St. Luke’s would be kept separate from the general population. “It may not be generally known that the hospital conducts a separate maternity house where women may go to be confined at a small expense compared with what they would have to pay out at home,” the article read. “It has never paid its way but it is such a benefit to the general public and women in the larger cities are so much going to maternity hospitals, that it has been felt that this separate work should be maintained, until the public comes to appreciate it and patronize it.”

Five years later, Dr. Edith Lowry wrote that, “It is becoming customary for an expectant mother to go to a hospital instead of being confined at home” partly because it “lessens the work of preparing for the event.” Her 1915 book “Your Baby” acknowledged that many births still occurred at home and provided instructions for preparing the bed with a rubber sheet or “several thicknesses of newspaper.” She also recommended that an “out of doors toilet” not be used after the beginning of labor pains because of the danger that the baby may be born too quickly.

Childbirth at hospitals was fast becoming the national norm, and Duluth was right on top of the trend. As the medical establishment worked to formalize birth, part of its strategy was to discredit midwives. In 1913, Charles Ziegler published an article called “The Elimination of the Midwife” in Journal of the American Medical Association. He declared during a talk in Pittsburgh in 1915 that, “the midwife ought to be entirely eliminated and her work placed in the hands of physicians and nurses.” He went on to say that the fault lay with the public.

The drive for formal birth registration (for use establishing community school, employment and draft records, etc) was also used against midwives during this time. In 1914, Duluth experienced a controversy  about the percentage of unregistered births, and a News Tribune article made it clear that midwives were not considered to be “part of the medical profession.”

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