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William Lowder: A Male Midwife in 18th-Century England

Midwifery was a developing science in the 18th century. New discoveries were being made in anatomy and physiology; new instruments were developed, and midwifery schools began to open, with courses running in the hospitals and partnerships created with lying in institutions. In the past, male practitioners had usually only attended at difficult labours, but in the 18th century, they began to practice as more general midwives, much to the offence of many contemporaries who saw it as unnatural. The most famous of the men midwives of the 18th century were William Smellie and William Hunter, but there were many others. The subject of this blog is one of these new male midwives, a doctor from Hampshire called William Lowder.

Fig. 3&4 Dr. Lowder's forceps. Engraving, 1798. London, Wellcome Library.

The Old Operating Theatre Musuem has an interest in Dr Lowder maily because he taught midwifery lectures for the students of the United Borough Schools of Guy’s and St Thomas’ in the late 18th century. The museum also has several obstetric instruments connected with Lowder in it’s collection, including a type of folding vectis he invented and a pair of Orme Lowder Haighton forceps, which have a shorter rounder shape which these three practioners favoured.

William Lowder himself was born in Southampton in 1732, the oldest son of William Lowder and Mary Daniel. He had a stepbrother, Thomas, from his mother’s previous marriage, and four other siblings, two sisters and two brothers.  I have been able to discover little else about his personal life, but he was married to Mary Parminter in 1768. Their son William was born in 1776 and died before his father in 1799, and another son Henry was born in 1778 (in Saint Saviour’s parish) and died in Bath in 1805. Biographical information about the family, especially at their deaths, is recorded by the Moravian Church. I also recall reading an anecdote somewhere about Lowder having a little pet dog, which died of hydrophobia (rabies) after being bitten by a wild dog, but as I have thoroughly lost the source of this anecdote, I can’t be sure anymore!

Of Lowder’s professional medical career, there is a little more information. He studied medicine in Scotland at Marischal College in Aberdeen (which later merged with it’s old rival King’s College in 1860 to become the single University of Aberdeen).  Lowder graduated with an MD in 1775 and began to practice in London.

In that same year, 1775, Lowder went into partnership with another man midwife named David Orme. Orme had been the assistant of another male midwife called Colin Mackenzie, who had just died. Mackenzie had run a midwifery school in St Saviour’s Churchyard (today Southwark Cathedral) since the 1750s, when he had become estranged from his own master William Smellie, apparently over the unauthorised acquisition of a corpse and it’s dissection*. Orme and Lowder took over this school and began to run it together and teach for Guy’s and St Thomas’ United Borough Schools. Orme, perhaps together with Lowder, paid a thousand guineas for the teaching materials of the school, including obstetric phantoms or machines. Simulating birth with the machines was a popular part of the lectures. William Hey advised his son Richard, when Richard was planning to attend Lowder’s lectures, to make sure he sat close when the machines were being demonstrated upon, in order to also learn from the mistakes of other students.

Lowder was especially well  known and respected – or else attacked by critics – for his use of the vectis, and he created a folding vectis which could be stored in the pocket. Many midwifery books of the following period in the nineteenth century mention Lowder in connection with this popular instrument. A vectis is a development of a obstetric lever. It has a single fenestrated oval blade, which looks rather like one side of a pair of forceps, or a long spoon with a hole in the centre of it’s scoop. Dr Lowder’s version had a hinge in the handle so that the vectis could be folded in half and stored more easily. Used to help with difficult childbirths, the vectis is used as a lever around the baby’s head or to alter the head’s position. It might also be used in a secret termination to remove the foetus, for which use Lowder recommended it. Lowder used it alone or together with the forceps when it made a three pronged instrument.

Midwifery certificate signed by Dr. Lowder.

Lowder’s invention lies in the dimension, straight length and shape of the oval blade rather than in the presence of the hinge. The history of who invented the numerous variations of obstetric instruments is notoriously complicated but the idea of the hinge, making the instrument easier to carry, is also seen in the instruments of a contemporary Dutch practitioner Mathias Saxtorffe or Saxtorph (of Copenhagen) amongst others. One of the earliest mentions of a hinged instrument is about Jonathan Freke (1688-1756) of St Bathlomew’s Hopsital, who used hinged forceps.

The use of instruments to assist in difficult childbirths in the 18th century was controversial and as many contemporaries were as critical of the use of the instrument as they were of using it secretly. This was a practice which was also common at a time when a man midwife had to work by touch, often reaching under a sheet, because he had to avoid accusations of inappropriate behaviour and indecency with his female patients. The fact that Lowder’s vectis had a hinge for ease of carriage also meant it fit nicely in the practitioner’s pocket and might be secretly deployed more easily.

Lowder was one of a fascinating generation of male midwives. Though his practice was still regarded with suspicion in his own time, he and his contemporaries appear very sincere in their desire to make childbirth safer, if more medicialised and not necessarily patient friendly at all!


Online Resources

Catalogue entry recording the location of Lowder’s papers.

Catalogue entry recording the location of notes taken by an anonymous student on Lowder’s lectures.

Link to an online copy of the syllabus of the Lowder Haighton School, published after lowder’s death in 1811 by Haighton.

Tyson, Blake B.SC. 1806-7. A Cumbrian Medical Student at Edinburgh University in 1806-7. York: University of York. (Of especial interest is an image of a certificate signed by Orme and Lowder).


Bibliography and Further Reading

Van Teijlingen, Edwin R. 2004.  Midwifery and the Medicalization of Childbirth: Comparative Perspectives.  Nova Publishers.

Wilson, Adrian. 1995. The Making of Man-midwifery: Childbirth in England, 1660-1770. Harvard University Press.

Hibbard, Bryan M. 2000. The Obstetrician’s Armamentarium: Historical Obstetric Instruments and Their Inventors. Norman Publishing.

Springer, Harry Owen. 2016. Simulation in Healthcare Education: An Extensive History.

Fasti Academiae Mariscallanae Aberdonensis : selections from the records of the Marischal College and University, MDXClll-MDCCCLX by University of Aberdeen. Marischal College; Anderson, Peter John, 1852-1926; Johnstone, James Fowler Kellas, 1846-1928

Pearson, John. 1822. The Life of William Hey. Husst.

Elisabeth Bennion. 1979. Antique Medical Instruments. University of California Press.


To cite this post : Kirsty Chilton, “William Lowder: A Male Midwife in 18th-Century England”, Museum Highlights (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), February 20, 2016. [On line] http://http://oldoperatingthea...


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Kirsty Chilton is assistant curator at the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. She is not too fond of selfies, hence the lego Resurrection Man

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