August 1972

This month’s post comes from the August issue of the 1972 volume of ‘Midwives Chronicle & Nursing Notes’.

 1972 was an important year for the Royal College of Midwives, as can be seen from the retiring Presidential Address made by Rosemary Perkes at the 90th Annual General Meeting in Edinburgh. Not only did the RCM contribute to several external committees, such as the reorganisation of the Health Service, and the Nursing Committee, chaired by Professor Asa Briggs, but reference is made to the part played by the RCM Council in relation to the Industrial Relations Act, which became law in 1971. As a result, the RCM was accepted for inclusion on the Special Register, allowing it to maintain its status including Royal Patronage, while accepting the obligations and enjoying the same benefits as a registered Trade Union. Thus, forty years ago these steps embodied the principle ethos of the RCM, to be a professional trade union and institution for midwives run by midwives.

 Rosemary Perkes concluded her address with the following words, which given the recent opening up of the RCM heritage collection and library, seem very apt today:

‘We have a wonderful heritage; we are the trustees of a proud tradition…although our subject becomes more scientific and technical, the actual process of childbirth remains the same. We must never forget that the service we provide is essentially a human activity – a comfort from one woman to another in her time of need.’

 A wonderful article in this issue, written by a Midwife Tutor in Penang Maternity Hospital, Malaysia, provides details about the childbirth customs in Malaysia. Customs such as not moving house, or avoiding carpenters (risk of malformations in the newborn from sawing and driving in nails) are mitigated by the requirement that ‘during pregnancy the woman should be as tranquil as possible and encouraged to see things beautiful, so that her baby will be bonny and beautiful and of cool temperament.’ The article covers beliefs associated with diet, labour, the placenta and the puerperium, and takes into account the different customs of the Malays, Chinese and Indians populating the country. One of the lovely customs celebrated is the burying of the placenta in the compound of the house, and planting a tree in the same spot, which grows with the child.

 There are further references to external committees, with a note about the Anti-Sex Discrimination Bill, being considered at this time by a select committee of the House of Lords. The midwifery profession was the only one to discriminate against the male sex, and a successful bill would mean that part of the Midwives Act would have to be repealed. This was the beginning of investigations into the acceptance of male midwives. When the 1976 Sex Discrimination Act was passed, midwifery was made exempt, but the government later sanctioned two experimental training schemes – one in England in 1977 and the second in Scotland in 1978. A study of the schemes concluded that male midwives were acceptable to women and in 1983, the government lifted the legal barriers on men practicing as midwives.

 To end on a humorous note, this issue has a small feature entitled ‘Nurses’ Howlers’ – a compilation of mistakes made by student midwives on their exam papers. My favourite is the following:

‘The signs of the 2nd stage of labour are more explosive contractions’!

Penny Hutchins, RCOG and RCM Archivist

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