What One Woman Said to this Doctor that Changed Childbirth Forever
Ten words in a Cockney accent in 1911 that altered the course of science and birth as we know it.
On a rainy night in 1911, an English doctor is called to a woman in a slum in London.
He parks his bicycle outside and enters to find a woman in labour. The room is lit by one candle, with the window broken, rain pouring in, and the bed with no proper covering. She's covered in sacks, accompanied by a neighbour, jug and basin.
The doctor, Grantly Dick-Read, does what he's used to doing for the middle class women in hospital. He offers her chloroform on a handkerchief. Back then, the drug was in fashion as pain relief since Queen Victoria requested it. It sometimes caused lethal effects and in later years was phased out, but at the time it was used regardless.
To Dick-Read's surprise, this woman refuses. He stays back as she brings her baby into the world.
Afterwards, when he asks her why she refused the chloroform, she replies with a line he'll never forget:
“Shyly she turned to me from the window that broke the first light of dawn and said:
‘It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t meant to, was it, doctor?’"
The idea that birth didn’t "hurt" for this woman, the idea that it didn’t have to hurt without drugs, was remarkable to Dick-Read. It was the first moment in his career that he'd seen a woman deliver a baby without the distress that was characteristic of the mothers he saw in hospital.
Dick-Read observed that the more frightened a woman was, the more painful and difficult was her labour; a topic he went on to spend the next 30 years of his life exploring. He identified the famous "fear-tension-pain" syndrome and said that the womb of a frightened woman would literally be white with lack of blood and oxygenation, causing her experience to be very different from a woman who was genuinely relaxed.
The Love Hormone
Not everyone agreed with Dick-Read. He was scorned by his peers, his ideas rejected. But he was also onto a monumental breakthrough in the world of science: the discovery of hormones, the crucial role that oxytocin, the "love hormone," relaxin, and prostaglandins play in childbirth, and how drugs may interrupt them.
He went on to pen the greatest book of the birth world, Childbirth Without Fear, in which he writes at length on his theories and links it all back to his encounter with the nameless woman from the Whitechapel slum. He went on to shape Natural Childbirth Trust, that later became the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) as we know it today in the UK.
His legacy also contributed to the rise of "Hypnobirthing," a technique to mentally reduce or eliminate the pain of labour, which women all over the world use today. Dick-Read's ideas also went on to influence other key names you may have heard of in the birth world: Sheila Kitzinger, Ferdinand Lamaze and Ina May Gaskin, to name a few.
His mission, in his words was to be with women at their bedside and listen to their wishes, was a game-changer in obstetrics. Still today, his words and theories are used to address the disconnect that is perceived to still continue in maternity culture today.
“It is as great a crime to leave a woman alone in her agony and deny her relief from her suffering, as it is to insist upon dulling the consciousness of a natural mother who desires above all things to be aware of the final reward of her efforts, whose ambition is to be present, in full possession of her senses, when the infant she already adores greets her with its first loud cry, and the soft touch of its restless body upon her limbs.” ― Grantly Dick-Read
The image you see in this post is a staged depiction of the famous Dick-Read scene. As a fine-art photographer, I wanted to be the first to recreate Dick-Read’s cinematic account visually, photographed in 2017 to look like a painting. Using Dennis Severs’ House in London, and inspiration from the composition of painting The Doctor (1890) by Sir Luke Fildes amongst other references, I bring the Whitechapel woman back to life—to spell out the power of the story and share the legacy of Grantly Dick-Read. Watch a behind-the-scenes at the video above.
About the author
I am a fine-art photographer and mother based in the UK, creating Birth Undisturbed, an award-winning series staging scenes of childbirth. (www.birthundisturbed.com). All proceeds from clicks and tips go toward the next in the series.