Anyone who is even slightly familiar with the history of childbirth in the modern world has probably heard the legendary story of the pig-gelder Jacob Nufer and the first successful cesarean section (performed on his wife in 1500). Successful because both mother and child lived, which had never before been documented to happen with a cesarean—and took quite some time to happen again. For example, there was a 100% mortality rate for cesareans performed in Paris for 89 YEARS (1787–1876). I’ve read several excellent books about the history of birth and feel fairly well-versed in the associated facts. However, this month I finished reading a new book by pediatrician Mark Sloan and was surprised to learn something completely new about the history of the cesarean section. This was that, the well-known legacy of Jacob Nufer notwithstanding, the first well-documented successful cesarean section performed in the English-speaking world was performed by Dr. James Barry in Cape Town South Africa in 1826. James Barry was quite the character, small of stature and very big of opinion and personality. He was a British Army officer who clashed frequently with everyone over everything (including even fighting duels!). He even had public arguments with none other than Florence Nightingale! And…then…the conclusion to this already interesting tale is that after Dr. James Barry died—after his forty year medical and military career—it was discovered that he was actually a woman!
I found this extremely fascinating. (I also imagined Jill at Unnecesarean using her Photoshop talents to make some kind of image about this…) So, despite the dominance of males in the medical profession, the first successful cesarean in the English-speaking world was actually performed by a woman! A point the author brings out in this discussion is that, “Here in the early years of the twenty-first century we have reached a point of high medical irony that would not be lost on James Barry: it now can take more courage—or foolhardiness—not to do a cesarean than it takes to do one.” How true.
Some other non-related quotes from Birth Day that I shared via the CfM Facebook page are as follows:
“Birth is about radical, creative, life-affirming change. It is about adaptation on a nearly unbelievable scale.” –Mark Sloan, MD
The quote above is in regard to the physical adaptations required by the baby immediately after birth—I see it as about both mother and baby though and I enjoy that it comes from a man and a doctor no less!
“Rigid plans work best if you’re building a skyscraper; with something as mysteriously human as giving birth, it’s best, both literally and figuratively, to keep your knees bent.” –Mark Sloan, MD
The above quote is from the segment about what he would want to tell his daughter about giving birth. Though the book wasn’t as “alternative” as many of the birth books I enjoy, I found Birth Day to be a very engaging and entertaining read!
Wow, fascinating history there!
As long as you’re not expecting a Kanye PhotoShop meme, because that is sooo 2009.
Dr. James Barry… the woman born Margaret Buckley in Cork, Ireland. http://img.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2008/03_02/barryDM0903_468x709.jpg
I didn’t realize that she (or he, if he was transgender… I’m not sure what the whole story was) was credited with one of the first cesareans. That is fascinating.
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