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Special Delivery

For the week of Monday December 15, 2014

On December 20, 1654, Notre-Dame Catholic Church in Quebec City recorded the first instance of a midwife in Canada: Marguerite Langloise. The women of New France placed their trust in female midwives such as Langloise to deliver most of their babies. Male doctors and surgeons only assisted when there were medical complications.

A midwife delivering a baby in France. Conditions in the colony would have been much more basic
© Bibliothèque nationale de France / Abraham Bosse / OA-22-FOL 240-250 / 1633

Langloise was a midwife to the few European women settled in New France. More women came in 1663, when France began sending young women with dowries from the King, to marry French colonists. Known as the King's Daughters, the families they established increased and sustained the French colonies- and created a greater demand for midwives. By delivering safe, healthy babies, midwives played an integral role in French colonization.

Some of the midwives who came to New France were trained at the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris in France, at the time one of the best obstetric schools in Europe. Among their ranks was Madeleine Bouchette who, in 1722, became the first midwife in New France to receive a salary from the King. Others were trained in the colony, passing on information from mother to daughter or from matron to apprentice, much like Marguerite Langloise had done with her niece Hélène Desportes, who then educated her own daughters, Françoise Hébert and Louise Morin. This cycle continued for many generations.

Midwives were also trained by local priests to perform emergency baptisms. At the time, childbirth was dangerous for both the mother and child. It was important to the Catholic inhabitants of New France that their infants receive baptism as soon as possible in the event of an early death. While the church might be too far away or a child might not be strong enough to make the trip, midwives were already there and qualified to administer the sacrament.

These pioneer obstetricians, the Midwives of New France, have been designated a National Historic Event, along with the Immigration of the King's Daughters to New France

To learn more about the King’s Daughters, please see A Long-awaited Arrival, and for more on women’s contribution to health care in Canada, please read the following stories in the This Week in History archives: NONIA: A Welcome Addition to the Community!, The Nurse of La Corne, “Granny Yip”, Heal the Body, Save the Soul, and Dr. Emily Stowe Remedies Social Ills.

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